Drastic Soluution to Court Ordered Psychiatric Evaluations: Stop Doing Them

In an article published this date,July 20, 2017 in the Argus Leader of Yankton South Dakota, “State hospital no longer performing court-ordered mental health exams,” and referenced articles published several months ago in the same paper which I have referenced and linked below, there is explained in some of the best and most clear, succinct reporting I have seen in several years, all the fuss and complicated issues surrounding one very critical part of the national mental health service delivery crisis for which there appears no end or easy solution in sight.

The problem is that in South Dakota specifically to start there as our study example, the state psychiatric hospital system (the state has only one such hospital because of its relatively low population) has been and is still been flooded with court ordered inmates from county jails all over the state for admission to be given forensic evaluations for fitness (competency is the legal term) to stand trial. Most of these persons are truly mentally ill, which is another part of the Gordian knot comprising this crisis that has been developing for over three decades nationwide. South Dakota’s hospital came under review and journalistic investigation by the Argus Leader some six months ago because 1) overcrowding was at a crisis level; 2) the hospital was running full and could not literally admit in a prompt and responsive manner the growing number of “ITP” patients (incompetent to proceed to trial); 3) mentally ill inmates were logjammed in unrelenting and overwhelming numbers in the state’s country jails; 4) counties’ budgets were being decimated by the costs of housing and trying to treat as much as they could with very limited resources, the psychiatric needs of these stalled patients/inmates; 5) the rights of the inmates/patients to a reasonably speedy trial-disposition of justice-were being far exceeded.

This is NOT a problem particular to way up there northern plain state of ‘lil ol’ South Dakota with its very small population, perhaps limited state revenue and budget. This is a NATIONAL CRISIS that is being seen in virtually every state in the United States. There are many factors for this and on the occasion of this post I will not go into much detail on why this has grown into the “Feed Me” monster plant of the famous play of decades ago that is devouring resources, facilities, budgets, policy wonk’s best ideas and stretching our mental health delivery system past its breaking point. The one factor I will briefly waggle my “I told you so” sorrowful finger at, is the predicted result of trans-institutionalization that I have written about quite often in this blog. ‘Nuff said for now. But it will be a very thorough conversation and historical revelation and analysis for another time.

Another very telling factor that I have not included in my list of causative/exacerbating factors above because it is literally out of South Dakota’s control, is the extreme shortage of psychiatrists and allied psychological professionals especially both forensic psychiatrists and psychologists. Training programs for these specialists have been too small since I was a resident in the 1970’s and the output of teentsy numbers of these subspecialists is now catching up with us in a big way and forming a “chokepoint” in the delivery of these systems for which there is no timely solution.

So what did poor South Dakota’s state psychiatric hospital do? They decided bravely to completely STOP performing such psychiatric forensic evaluations. This decision somewhat flabbergasted (I have loved that word since I was a blabber mouthed kid) at this really brave and somewhat bureaucratically perilous, singular decision. I think South Dakota is the only state to make such a governmental service decision. In my world, this is almost akin to stop paving the highways, or shut down half the public schools or some other state governmental function that we all take for granted whether we are aware of its importance or not.

The state went so far as the leave monies for all these legal-psychiatric services completely out of the state budget! To read the account of this very unusual move, read the following article: “ Mental health court money left out of state budget.”

Perhaps other states have done the same thing recently but honestly my Google and other search news bots have not alerted me that such has occurred at all anywhere. As we say in the South, I have not “heard tell of”  anything like this.

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Author: Frank

I am a older child, adult, geriatric teaching psychiatrist with over 30 years' practice experience in North Carolina, first at Duke as clnical teaching faculty, then in Western NC as a primary child psychiatry specialist. I have taught and supervised child psychiatrists and psychiatrists in training and many other mental health professionals and taught at two medical schools. I have served in many public and private practice settings. My primary interest is in observing and documenting the ongoing mental health reform efforts in the State of North Carolina and documenting its sucessess and failures at all levels. My favorite pastime among many others is spoofing my friends and kids with my deadpan sense of humor.

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