Legal Questions

Disclaimer: The following is basic information about legal issues that may arise regarding mental health concerns. This data is general knowledge. If you are in need of official legal advice, contact a qualified legal professional.

My friend/family member won’t follow recommended treatment. What can I do to encourage him to follow through?

In the United States, noncompliance is not a crime and, therefore, medication or therapy is not enforceable except in the case of minors and those who are a danger to themselves or others.

NAMI offers education programs and support groups that assist individuals with mental illness and their family members/friends. NAMI’s peers and families involved in the support groups have been through similar experiences and know of resources in the area to help you cope with you or your family member’s illness.

In extreme cases when an individual with mental illness may be a danger to themselves or others, a friend or family member can petition the courts to have the person committed to assisted treatment. You can call Crisis Services (814) 456-2014 to start this petition. A book that many family members and friends have found helpful is, “I Am Not Sick, I Don’t Need Help” by Xavier Amador, Ph.D., available in our local NAMI library.


How do I file a complaint against a mental health care facility/professional?

If the physician/psychiatrist works for a hospital or agency, you may contact the doctor’s supervisor. You can also file a complaint to the state medical board, or – if he/she is a member of the American Psychiatric Association (APA). It should be noted that not all psychiatrists are members of this particular association. The APA may also refer you to its APA District Branch or state psychiatric society.

If mental health professionals are employed by a hospital or agency, you may file complaints to the therapist’s supervisor, the Hospital Ombudsman, or Administrator. Therapists are regulated by their licensing boards (e.g. the state board of health and mental hygiene, counseling, or other licensing board). They may also be members of their professional associations (s/he may be a member of the National Association of Social Workers, the American Psychological Association, etc.). The State NAMI may have the appropriate number and listings.

For addressing abuse or neglect in an institutional setting, contact the Protection and Advocacy Agencies that advocate on behalf of individuals with mental illness who are in institutional settings (such as a jail, correctional facility, or state psychiatric facility). If you have complaints of abuse, neglect, or mistreatment in a hospital setting, report to the Hospital Ombudsman or Administrator.

There is also JCAHO (Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations) Complaint Hotline at (800) 994-6610 — JCAHO accredits hospitals, home health agencies, nursing homes, laboratories, outpatient clinics, and behavioral health and managed care plans, among others. Complaints should be related to patient rights, care of patients, safety, infection control, medication use, and/or security (not billing, insurance, or payment disputes).

For complaints about a CMHC (community mental health center), you may file a complaint with the state mental health agency. In the instance of Medicaid and Medicare recipients with complaints about CMHCs, Medicare beneficiaries may contact the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), Regional Medicare Office, and the state Peer Review Organization; Medicaid beneficiaries may contact the state Medicaid official and perhaps the state Medical Review Board.

In the case of filing lawsuits, you should seek a private attorney. State bar listings may be found at www.martindale.com.


My friend or family member is in jail due to his/her mental illness. How can we help?

The National Association of Protection and Advocacy Systems, Inc. and the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law are designed to deal with the rights of individuals involved in the criminal justice system. They specifically address the needs of incarcerated individuals, whether they are in the correctional system or hospitalized in a forensic ward.

Click here to view NAMI’s Fact Sheet on the Criminal Justice System.


My employer is not treating me fairly because I have a mental illness. What can I do to fight this?

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, state and local government activities, public accommodations and transportation, telecommunications, and public services. It was signed into law by President George Bush on July 26, 1990. Click here for more information.


Does NAMI offer legal advice or have a list of lawyers?

NAMI cannot verify qualifications or credentials of attorneys in the area. More detailed information can be obtained by contacting the Disability Law Directory of the American Bar Association, the Directory of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association Directory, and the Directory of Local Pro Bono Programs.

You may contact the NAMI Legal Center by e-mail or by calling (703) 524-7600. Please list your full name, address with zip code, and telephone number to help us find legal aid in your area.

The American Bar Association has an online database of pro-bono attorneys. They also offer guidelines for finding free legal assistance.

You may also wish to consult this state by state listing of attorneys.

The United States Congress established the Legal Services Corporation to provide low-income Americans access to civil legal aid.

Legal Aid / local legal service agencies may assist those unable to pay for legal assistance (limitations often apply, such as no criminal cases). Check your local phone directory under “legal aid” for services.