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A Dire Situation at Mental Health Facilities

A photo of the Commonwealth Center for Children and Adolescents in Staunton, VA. A maroon and tan building with a gable roof against a blue sky.

Six out of eight state hospitals are 98% full, the head of the Department of Behavioral Health & Developmental Services said in a Senate Finance Committee meeting Tuesday.

“Unfortunately I will be giving you some information and saying some things that may not be easy to hear for the committee.” said commissioner Alison Land.

Mental health facilities are having to treat more patients with less staff: There were 1000 staff vacancies before the pandemic, which puts patients and staff at an increased safety risk. Land said the vacancies have only grown, to about 1300.

“We're really running 60 to 70% in the facilities,” she said.

Inappropriate admissions are putting pressure on the system, according to Land. Many temporary detention orders for elderly patients with dementia lead to patients being transported to mental health facilities. State code puts those patients under mental health care.

“However, dementia is not a mental illness,” Land said. “We are not the best place to manage these patients. Assisted living and memory care units are more appropriate sources of care.”

The pressure on facilities draws on law enforcement resources too. Patients are observed by law enforcement before and during transport to hospitals. When a bed isn't available officers have to be with them for a longer period of time. If a bed does open up it might be a long distance away - meaning they have to be with them longer since the transport time takes. This is particularly acute in rural areas.

Land said she's extremely worried about the Commonwealth Center for Children and Adolescents in Staunton. It’s running at 50% capacity now, and typically when children return to school the demand surges.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

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