Archive for January, 2016

Virginia’s Dysfunctional Mental Health System Puts Patients At Risk

Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe’s plan to close Catawba Hospital, a 110-bed psychiatric facility located near Roanoke, is the latest blow to the state’s underfunded and uncoordinated mental health system.

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Over the past four decades, Virginia has already lost nearly 80 percent of its psychiatric hospital beds, leaving fewer than 1,500 statewide. Compounding the problem is the lack of community-based services, such as counseling, housing and treatment, needed for people struggling with mental illness to get the care they need outside an inpatient facility.

Due to the state’s failure to invest in those services, hundreds of discharge-ready patients are crowded into a limited number of beds, stuck at a hospital level of care because there is no plan for them to step down. This leaves little room for those who are most at risk.

As a result, people suffering from mental illness and substance disorders are left in a place that is ill-equipped to care for them: the criminal justice system. Nearly 7,000 Virginians with mental illness are currently incarcerated, more than four times the number in psychiatric hospitals.

Lack of Services Leads to Tragedy

Without the dedicated care they need, inmates with mental illnesses are at increased risk of abuse, neglect and suicide. In one recent tragedy, Jamycheal Mitchell, a mentally ill 24-year-old man, was arrested after shoplifting $5 worth of snacks from a convenience store. He wasted away and died after four months of neglect in jail.

A judge repeatedly ordered that Mitchell be transferred to a psychiatric hospital, but no beds were available. Meanwhile, at Eastern State Hospital, the nearest state psychiatric facility, some two dozen patients had been designated ready for discharge but remained in their beds due to a lack of community-based services.

Even when beds are available, failures to effectively coordinate care can be deadly. In November 2013, Austin “Gus” Deeds, a 24-year-old college student with bipolar disorder, stabbed and slashed his father, R. Creigh Deeds, 13 times before dying by suicide.

That night, the Deeds family had gotten a court order that gave the state six hours to place Gus in an inpatient treatment facility. Mental health evaluator Michael Gentry claimed he called 10 facilities that could care for Gus, but phone records show that he only called seven. Tragically, two of the three facilities that were not called had space available.

The elder Deeds, a Virginia state senator, survived the attack and has been a vocal advocate for mental health reform since. He is also pursuing a $6 million wrongful death suit against the state.

A Nationwide Trend

Virginia’s issues with mental health are far from unique. Rather, the lack of psychiatric beds is a result of a nationwide initiative in the 1970s to downsize psychiatric hospitals in favor of community-based care. While well-intentioned, this initiative ultimately led to cuts across the mental health system, as funding did not follow the patients into the community.

As such, people suffering from mental illness and their loved ones are left to deal with confusing bureaucracy, long wait times for services, overcrowded facilities and overworked care providers. In such environments, patients are commonly neglected and even abused, leaving them at elevated risk for inpatient suicide.

Hospital Records Can be Invaluable Evidence After Inpatient Suicide

Mental health facilities have obligations to psychiatric patients to keep them safe, particularly when patients are on suicide watch and there is a risk of death by suicide.  One of the duties in most facilities is simply to monitor patients who are at great risk to ensure they do not try to self-harm.  If a hospital has failed in any of its obligations to patients and inpatient suicide occurs as a result of this failure, it is possible to take legal action against the facility. documents-1427202

Hospitals can be held responsible for negligence in policies which lead to patients dying by suicide. If staff members fail to fulfill the obligations imposed upon them by their jobs, mental health facilities can also be held accountable due to these on-duty errors or the negligence of staff members in fulfilling work tasks.

Hospital records and other internal evidence from mental health facilities can prove invaluable in determining if the facility has lived up to its obligations or not.  An experienced inpatient suicide lawyer can assist family members of patients who died by suicide in obtaining necessary records to help prove negligence.

Video Surveillance Footage Helps to Show Staff Failure in Mental Health Facility

Naples News reported on one tragic case which illustrates how information a hospital collects can be used to help prove negligence after inpatient suicide occurs.  The case involved the suicide of a 51-year-old man who was in a psychiatric inpatient hospital. The man had been admitted because of feelings of paranoia, hopelessness, and depression. His admissions paperwork indicated he had been having suicidal thoughts.

During the time he was in the 103-bed facility, the 51-year-old man was quiet and didn’t participate in any activities or therapy sessions. Two days prior to his death, he asked to talk to a social worker and requested forms for a living will. The social worker didn’t ask the reason for this request, and did not report the request to anyone.   The patient’s doctor indicates he would have put the patient on immediate suicide watch if he had been aware a request for a living will was made.

Even though the patient was not on suicide watch, he was still supposed to be checked on every 15-minutes.  Unfortunately, though written paperwork indicated these checks had happened, surveillance footage from the hospital shows there were two checks missed in a row. Neither a 9:15 and a 9:30 check happened. By 9:45, when the 51-year-old patient was finally checked on, the patient had gone into the bathroom and hanged himself with a tied-up hospital gown.

There were numerous situations in this case where the hospital facility dropped the ball, from the social worker not reporting the living will to the 15-minute checks not being made. The surveillance evidence and the patient records including the living will help to show how the hospital facility fell short of its obligations.  A suicide lawyer can help family members to obtain this type of evidence to prove a mental health facility should be held accountable for lapses.