Legislature leaves mental health measures in limbo

By Faith Myers Updated: 1 hour ago Published: 1 hour ago Alaska Psychiatric Institute is…

Legislature leaves mental health measures in limbo
By Faith Myers

Updated: 1 hour ago Published: 1 hour ago

Legislature leaves mental health measures in limbo

Thousands of people each year in Alaska are transported to a locked psychiatric facility or unit for a forced psychiatric evaluation or treatment. The challenge for the state and the patients — there is not a sufficient number of beds, funding and hospital staff to properly care for and protect patients.

House Bill 80 and its companion, Senate Bill 53, would give the option to prosecutors to more easily civilly commit people that are accused of committing a violent crime but are unable to stand trial because of a mental illness. I support the bills, except for the fact the House and the Senate have not answered the question of how the state is going to place violent people in psychiatric units and protect the nonviolent patients.

Alaska has a history of not providing proper protection and care for people the state considers having a disability. In 2021, the state ombudsman stated in a report that only about half of the patients at state-run Alaska Psychiatric Institute were given an individualized treatment plan. What that translates to is that at least one-half of the patients were simply warehoused and not given a reasonable opportunity for recovery. An individualized treatment plan would also give staff a blueprint on how to properly care for people with trauma in their background.

The state ombudsman also stated in a report that it appears that staff at API had a permissive attitude toward patient-on-patient assaults. When more violent and unpredictable people who have committed crimes are placed in API as patients because of the passage of HB 80 or SB 53, it will present an unnecessary danger to nonviolent patients.

Psychiatric patients are already at risk of being injured or unnecessarily traumatized during treatment. In 2017 at API, there were 116 patients injured, of whom 90 needed hospitalization or medical care. Fifty were the result of patient-on-patient assaults.

There has never been an effort by state agencies to document and publicize patient complaints, injuries and traumatic events from all psychiatric facilities or units financially supported by the state. People with a mental illness appear to be a forgotten and unprotected class in Alaska.

It was reported in the Anchorage Daily News that the police were called to the North Star Behavioral Health Services in Anchorage about 100 times in 2022, either to arrest patients for violent actions or to investigate destruction of property.

No non-violent psychiatric patient should be required by the state to receive treatment in a facility that is known for violence.

The standard treatment of acute care psychiatric patients in facilities like API too often promotes a revolving-door commitment of patients or leaves them sleeping on the streets. Patients are often cut off from family, friends and the community; unable to go outdoors in the fenced courtyard on a regular basis; and as stated in a previous paragraph, unable to fully participate in their treatment plan.

House Bill 80 and Senate Bill 53, if brought up later this year or next year, must have more ambition than simply getting dangerous people off the streets and protecting the general public. There must be requirements in the bills to protect nonviolent patients from violent patients in psychiatric facilities.

Faith J. Myers is the author of the book, “Going Crazy in Alaska; a History of Alaska’s treatment of psychiatric patients,” and has spent more than seven months as a patient in locked psychiatric facilities in Alaska.

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