National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Frequently Asked Questions: Legal/Advocacy

  1. I have a legal problem, but I can’t afford a lawyer. Does NAMI offer legal advice, or have a listing of lawyers that specialize in mental health law?
  2. How do I file a complaint against a mental health care facility or professional?
  3. My friend or family member is in jail due to his/her mental illness. How can we help this person?
  4. My employer is not treating me fairly because I have a mental illness. What can I do to fight this?

1. I have a legal problem, but I can’t afford a lawyer. Does NAMI offer legal advice, or have a listing of lawyers that specialize in mental health law?

The NAMI Helpline receives daily calls from our members and the public requesting legal assistance. Unfortunately, NAMI does not have the resources to advocate on behalf of individuals on a case-by-case basis. To help address this need, we have gathered information about lawyers around the country with expertise on mental illness and created a lawyer referral panel.

We require attorneys on our Lawyer Referral Panel to complete questionnaires regarding their specialties, fees, education and liability insurance. Communications to the Helpline remain confidential, as does our attorney information. We do not verify qualifications or credentials of attorneys on our panel. We supplement our listings with 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 find helpful information on our Legal Support page or contact the NAMI HelpLine at 1 (800) 950-6264 or by email. Please furnish your full name, address with zip code and telephone number to help us find legal aid in your area.

NAMI State Organizations and NAMI Affiliates may also keep lists of attorneys familiar with mental illness issues, or they may be willing to share informal, personal experiences with local lawyers.

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

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.

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

Complaints about an individual physician/psychiatrist: If the physician/psychiatrist works for a hospital or agency, you may contact the doctor's supervisor. You can also file a complaint with the state medical board or the American Psychiatric Association (APA) (some psychiatrists are members, some are not). The APA might also refer you to its APA District Branch or state psychiatric society.

Complaints about other mental health professionals: If employed by a hospital or agency, you may file complaints with the therapist's supervisor, the hospital ombudsman or the 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 (such as the National Association of Social Workers, the American Psychological Association, etc.). Your NAMI State Organization may have the appropriate number and listing.

Abuse or neglect in an institutional setting: Protection and Advocacy Agencies advocate on behalf of individuals with mental illness who are in institutional settings (such as jails, correctional facilities or state psychiatric hospitals); allegations of abuse or neglect are one of their top priorities.

Complaints of abuse, neglect or mistreatment in the hospital setting: As mentioned above, you may file a complaint directly to the hospital ombudsman or administrator.

Or, you may contact The Joint Commission (formerly known as JCAHO, the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations) online or call their toll-free Compliant Hotline at (800) 994-6610 to share concerns regarding quality of care. The Joint Commission accredits hospitals, home health agencies, nursing homes, outpatient clinics, behavioral health care programs and managed care plans among others. Complaints should be related to patient rights, quality of care, safety, infection control, medication use and/or security. They are unable to assist with billing, insurance or payment disputes.

Complaints about a CMHC (community mental health center): You may file a complaint with the state mental health agency. Medicaid and Medicare recipients with complaints about CMHCs have the following options: Medicare beneficiaries may contact the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) regional Medicaid Service and the state Peer Review Organization. Medicaid beneficiaries may contact the state Medicaid official, and perhaps the state medical review board could help.

Your NAMI State Organization and NAMI Affiliate may be able to assist you as well.

Filing Lawsuits: Should you seek a private attorney, click here for guidelines on how to find an attorney. State bar listings may be found at

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

For additional details, click here to view NAMI's Guide to Mental Illness and the Criminal Justice System and here for a new Criminal Justice Self-Advocacy fact sheet.

You will want to determine if your loved one is receiving medication. The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires that jail officials provide adequate medical care. This may mean that a family member or your loved ones psychiatrist, be in touch with jail officials.

If you loved one has been assigned a public defender, try to communicate with that person about the mental health history and how it may be affecting their loved ones behavior. You may want to present them with printed information or fact sheets that address the illness, which can be found on the NAMI website.

It may be helpful to find out if there are mental health courts or jail diversion programs in the area. These programs aim to reduce the time a person with a mental illness spends in jail by diverting them to community based services, like court supervised treatment or assertive community treatment programs.

Finally, your State Organization or NAMI Affiliate may be able to offer additional suggestions and/or support.

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

It is important for individuals living with mental illness to know about the protections in place for individuals living with mental illness in the work place. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits job discrimination on the basis of a disability. This means it unlawful to refuse to hire or terminate a qualified applicant/employee with a disability because he is disabled or because a reasonable accommodation is required to make it possible for this person to perform essential job functions.

Generally, if you think you have been discriminated against in employment on the basis of disability file a complaint promptly. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has a wealth of information on the ADA and how to file complaints against employers.

Litigation is also an option after the EEOC complaint has been filed.