May is Mental Health Awareness month.
There are good reasons to celebrate the advances in mental health care in Alaska. There are more reasons to examine the failures.
At the top of the list: Alaska is not providing adequate protection for disabled psychiatric patients facing unnecessary trauma.
Alaska cannot make advances in mental health care and provide protection for patients when the Department of Health and Social Services does not know statewide how many psychiatric patients file a complaint, how many are injured during treatment or transportation. Or how many face unnecessary traumatic events. As of now, mental health policy makers at a state level are not listening to the voices of psychiatric patients through exit polls or statistics.
Ever since statehood, Alaska has taken the easy way of caring for disabled psychiatric patients. The Department of Health and Social Services delegates to approximately 40 private psychiatric facilities or units the authority of the state to detain and treat psychiatric patients and the private hospitals set the standard of care. Convenient for the state, but not good for a person losing their rights in a locked private psychiatric facility.
Psychiatric patients find themselves at a disadvantage when they try to file a grievance; psychiatric hospitals set the due process including when a patient can file a grievance. The Legislative Legal Services, April 20th, put forth the opinion, that psychiatric patients have a right to file a grievance and bring it to an impartial body, but there is no state enforcement mechanism in law or regulations to make sure patients are treated fairly.
People with a severe mental illness tend to burn bridges with family and friends. And by the time a person is dropped off or transported to a locked psychiatric facility, most patients are pretty much alone and find themselves facing a standard of care that for the most part has been designed for a hospital’s convenience.
In 2003, while I was cooking supper, the Anchorage police came to my apartment and stated they had an order to take me to the Alaska Psychiatric Institute for a psychiatric evaluation. I was placed in handcuffs. I asked the police if they would get my jacket, shoes, keys and glasses. The police refused my request. I was hustled out the door, in winter, barefoot and cold without glasses to be transported in a marked police car to API.
I am nearsighted and without glasses I am legally blind beyond one foot. I spent five months in API without glasses. API management kept telling me they would not help me get glasses, and that I would have to wait until I was released and then I could get my own glasses. There are no independent patient advocates inside of the major psychiatric units that are readily available to help patients with their complaints during the hours of operation.
Even disabled psychiatric patients that are cooperative are handcuffed and placed in a marked police car during transportation to a psychiatric facility or unit. Alaska has not produced a plan on how to transport psychiatric patients and provide care in the best manner possible to reduce trauma.
There are tangible benefits for Alaska to move disabled psychiatric patients through a system of transportation and care in a way that reduces trauma to the lowest possible amount. And there are very real benefits to the patient in the way of recovery.
Acute care psychiatric patients are one of the most vulnerable and mistreated groups in Alaska, often alone and afraid. It would be in Alaska’s best interest to provide coping skills and proper care for psychiatric patients, free from unnecessary trauma and mistreatment.
An improved standard of psychiatric patient care can only start with legislative action. Mental Health Awareness month would be a good time to start.
• Faith J. Myers is the author of the book, “Going Crazy in Alaska: A History of Alaska’s Treatment of Psychiatric Patients,” and has volunteered as a mental health advocate for over ten years.