Opinion: Disabled psychiatric patients need better care

A more social worker-heavy model as an addition to a police department is a reasonable idea.

  • Thursday, June 25, 2020 12:37pm
  • Opinion

Individuals with a mental illness represent a rainbow of colors and backgrounds. As a group, they are perhaps the most under-protected minority in Alaska. Psychiatric units and the police should do a better job of caring for disabled psychiatric patients, but the Alaska legislature has never asked them to do so.

Up to 90% of the people that die by suicide have a diagnosable mental illness, according to recent studies. Seventy percent of the females that enter a psychiatric facility will have been sexually abused, not counting the physical assaults. Up to 47% of the individuals that enter an acute care psychiatric facility will experience trauma that may cause or exacerbate Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Add on to that, psychiatric patients are not receiving independent assistance in filing or reviewing a patient’s grievance.

[Opinion: Privatizing Alaska Psychiatric Institute is a mistake]

There is no legitimate reason for not passing legislation to aid in the reduction of mistreatment of psychiatric patients in Alaska, other than the state seeking convenience in laws, regulations and policies.

Reducing how disabled psychiatric patients are mistreated by the police and psychiatric institutions has been a very long effort. One hundred and thirty-three years ago, a 23-year-old investigative reporter wrote the book “Ten days in a Mad House.” As Nellie Bly waited for a decision to be made about being taken to Blackwell’s Island, the Women’s Lunatic Asylum, a police officer said “If she don’t come along quietly, I will drag her through the streets.”

Fast forward nearly a century and a half; a non-violent person picked up by the police and transported for evaluation or treatment in a psychiatric unit will more often than not be hand-cuffed and paraded through town in the back of a marked police car.

Three hospitals in Alaska act as a designated evaluation and treatment facility: Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, Providence Psychiatric Emergency Room and Bartlett Regional Hospital. Bartlett Regional Hospital has a 12-bed acute care Adult Mental Health Unit that acts as the regional center for Southeast Alaska. During the crisis at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute, Bartlett Hospital received psychiatric patients from all over the state. Four hundred and fifty psychiatric patients is the average annually with patients staying 5 to 7 days,.

In 2017, the Providence Psychiatric Emergency Room detained and evaluated 4,485 individuals, many arrive in handcuffs and most are not told by the police they have a right to call an attorney or why they are being transported. The same from hospital staff. Individuals are not informed they are undergoing a psychiatric evaluation that may have a profound effect on their life. And they are not informed they have the right to call an attorney or to bring a grievance to an impartial body within a facility.

The Department of Health and Social Services produced a 30-page document, Jan. 21,2020, “Addressing Gaps in the Crisis Psychiatric Response System.” It is mentioned that there are 30 private locations that detain, evaluate or treat disabled psychiatric patients. In my opinion, the 30-page document does not have any real answers or solutions to the lawsuit filed by Disability Law Center and others to fix the problem of the mistreatment of disabled psychiatric patients in psychiatric evaluation units.

Not enough has changed to improve the quality of care of psychiatric patients since Bly’s day. State law AS47.30.660 (b) (13) lets the state delegate its responsibilities of caring for psychiatric patients to private facilities with what many consider an insufficient state standard of care. State law AS47.30.847 lets managers of psychiatric facilities write the patient grievance procedure and establish the impartial body that reviews the legitimacy of patient complaints.

Implementing a more social worker-heavy model as an addition to a police department is a reasonable idea. Social workers would be better equipped to interact with the homeless and individuals with a mental illness. But the program would only work if accompanied by legislation that improves basic rights of disabled psychiatric patients.

Faith Myers spent numerous times between 1999 and 2003 in psychiatric evaluation units or facilities as a patient. She has volunteered as a mental health advocate for well over a decade concentrating on changing laws and regulations that benefit the state and psychiatric patients.Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

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