What can you do when your neighbor has mental problems that may be a danger to himself or the community?

Many mental disorders witnessed by community members are those associated with old age. However, cases involving people with other types of mental disorders do arise. Many mental disorders do not become severe immediately and may be severe one day and not the next. If you observe odd behavior, you should document the behavior with its date and time. Any such documentation should be kept confidential. As a preemptive measure, unless the behavior is so odd as to dictate other action, you may ask your neighbor if there is any thing wrong and whether there is any one who may be contacted for assistance now or in the future (i.e. a family member, friend or doctor). If a contact person is determined while his disorder is only mild, this contact person may be of great assistance if the disorder progresses or an emergency arises.

With luck, in many cases, a family member or friend will be available to care for the your neighbor. Unless the circumstances are emergent, the family member or friend should be contacted, advised of the his condition and requested to address the problem. Intervention by a family member or friend will hopefully end your involvement.

If the problem is emergent however, (he leaves gas on without flame being lit, leaves iron

on unattended, starts fires by careless smoking, leaves running water such that it floods areas, inappropriately approaches, threatens or attacks other neighbors) emergency services personnel should be immediately summoned. Summoning the police, fire department or rescue squad will serve two functions, first these people should be able to remove the immediate danger. Second, the call generates a report that will be an important part of the record of your neighbor’s behavior should injunction, guardianship or commitment proceedings become necessary. You should speak to the responding officer and request that the report carefully detail the person’s behavior. You may also attempt to obtain a copy of the report.

Unless the emergency services personnel take your neighbor into custody, they are limited in what they can do to prevent future problems. Regardless, once the emergency is resolved, the resident’s family or friends should be contacted to address the problem. Unfortunately, in many cases, there are no known friends or family or they are spread across the country and unable or unwilling to address the problem. You are then left addressing your neighbor’s disorder and his future danger to himself and the community. This danger is greatly increased if you live in any type of high density housing (i.e. apartment building, condominium, town home etc.). If you live in high density housing and the community has a manager, superintendent or board of trustees, they should be notified, in writing, of the situation. They should assist you in addressing the problem if not completely address the problem themselves.

If there are no known friends or family or they are unable or unwilling to address the problem, the County Department of Social Services, Adult Protective Services should be contacted, informed of the incidents and provided with copies of any reports regarding your neighbor’s behavior. The Adult Protective Service works to prevent neglect, abuse and exploitation of vulnerable adults. Adult Protective Services will likely respond by sending a case worker out to visit your neighbor and evaluate his condition. Again, you may request that Adult Protective Services provide you with a copy of their written report. However, confidentially concerns will likely prevent them from providing you with one.

After the case worker evaluates you neighbor, recommendations will be made. To the extent they are able, the case worker will likely attempt to help him live safely on his own. However, in severe cases, guardianship and/or commitment proceedings may be brought. For a guardian to be appointed to manage your neighbor’s affairs, it must be shown that he is wholly incapable of managing his own affairs. For him to be committed to a psychiatric facility, it must be shown that he is mentally ill (current, substantial disturbance of thought, mood, perception or orientation which significantly impairs judgment, capacity to control behavior or capacity to recognize reality) and that he is dangerous to himself or others or property and is unwilling to be admitted voluntarily.

Adult Protective Services would likely participate in a guardianship or commitment proceeding. However, your documentation of events will be valuable in meeting the high burden for showing that a guardian must be appointed or that he must be committed. Beyond the high burden in guardianship and commitment proceedings, there may not be any one willing to serve as guardian (you might be recruited). Additionally, guardianship and commitment proceedings may be expensive and time consuming. Criminal complaints may also be an option if your neighbor’s activities involve criminal activity. Complaints for injunctive relief (issuance of a court order requiring that your neighbor do or not do something may also be filed. If an injunction is violated, an application may be made to the court to have your neighbor arrested for violation of the court’s order. Again, however, an action for injunctive relief could be expensive and time consuming.

To summarize, in addressing a mentally disturbed neighbor, you should:

  1. Attempt to obtain contact information prior to his becoming fully incapacitated.
  2. If an emergency arises, contact emergency services to remove the source of the emergency.
  3. Prepare a written record of the events associated with the particular resident.
  4. Follow up by contacting the County Adult Protective Service. 5.) Assist the Adult Protective Service case worker in remedying the problem on a long term basis.

Below are numbers for the Adult Protective Services in each county.

Atlantic County: 888-426-9243

Bergen County: 201-368-4300

Burlington County: 609-261-1000 x249 or x356

Camden County: 609-225-8146

Cape May County: 609-886-6200

Cumberland County: 609-825-6810 x219

Essex County: 201-678-9700

Gloucester County: 609-256-2250

Hudson County: 201-915-7280

Hunterdon County: 908-788-1300

Mercer County: 609-989-6488

Middlesex County: 732-745-3635

Monmouth County: 908-531-9191

Morris County: 201-326-7282

Ocean County: 908-929-2091

Passaic County: 201-881-3216

Salem County: 609-229-3200

Somerset County: 732-418-3400

Sussex County: 973-383-3600

Union County: 908-355-4949

Warren County: 908-475-4744