Georgia Struggles with Nationwide Problem of Housing for Chronically Mentally Ill

Finding housing for the chronically mentally ill after discharge from psychiatric inpatient services has come to be one of the most vexing problems that all states continue to struggle with. In brief, this has risen to be one of the paramount issues facing every state’s public mental health service delivery system due primarily to two factors: 1) decades of “de-institutionalization,” phasing out the practice and philosophy of housing the chronically mentally for decades or lifetimes, coupled with cutting back in every state of the numbers of state hospital psychiatric beds, and, 2) the rise of legal decisions and enforcement measures since the 1970’s emphasizing transferring patients to “less restrictive” levels of care, which is most clearly spelled out and embodied by the Olmstead Supreme Court decision.

An earlier post described the revelation that in Nevada in this past decade or less, that state had been discharging patients on planes to San Francisco, California! Patients were apparently given a suitcase of a supply of clothes and supposedly some amount of money to help them set down roots in the neighboring state. By report, this practice had been utilized for about two years before it was revealed and a brouhaha resulted. New York state’s practice of turning out of use old hotels turned into “welfare hotels,” for housing not only persons or families on welfare but also the chronically mentally ill and paroled ex-convicts has long been known.

This past week or so, an article entitled: “Deaths, delays paint grim picture of Georgia mental health reform: State still discharging patients to extended-stay motels, homeless shelters, by veteran reporter Alan Judd was published May 11, in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper. that shows the huge problems states face in completing the long heralded de-institutionalization process, that of moving the “CMI” [chronically mentally ill] populations from hospitals to safe housing with adequate outpatient treatment, supervisory and rehabilitation services.

Georgia has been contending with this issue for at least 7 years since the federal government began to monitor and require positive changes in finding housing for the discharged patients, instead of releasing them as the article put it: “with just a bus token and directions to a homeless shelter.” Now Georgia apparently faces the imposition of a looming deadline of June 30, 2018, to comply with a legal settlement and pledge Georgia entered into with the federal U. S. Department of Justice back in 2010. 

The article even-handedly notes the many steps of progress that have been undertaken and implemented by the state and gives credit for notable and partial improvements.

But this article illustrates the Herculean tasks that states face in transitioning themselves from the traditional custodial role utilizing large massive hospitals and viewing treatment as often lifelong or at least so long that it may as well be lifelong, to a system aiming at re-integrating the chronically mentally ill safe enough to be returned to the communities and constructing complete new and entirely different systems of housing and care for literally thousands of persons within spans of a relatively few years. There are no simple answers in any quarter and the task which may have been viewed as achievable within approximate task-timer periods clearly is proving to be greater, harder, more coslty and complicated than likely almost anyone could have imagined.At the least, enforcement by the “feds,” may have to consist of extending time periods of effort to the states and partnerships that help with costs and perhaps even approaches not yet widely appreciated by any of us.


Community Support Like Gheel Belgium in Frederick Maryland

Since the 1400’s, the town of Gheel (also spelled Geel) Belguim has done an incredible “community project,” that as a psychiatrist I have read about periodically, and marveled at for decades. In short through an unbelievably improbable religious fluke of an event of historical Christianity, started a custom of taking in the mentally ill by families. In Gheel, families would care for the mentally disabled for as long as they could. If the parents of the caretaking family died, and the disabled ‘adopted’ member of the family was still alive, the grown children would take over their care. The system was unique in the world and still is. In fact, in some ways because of its historical longevity, it has in some ways become stronger. All this occurred centuries before any semblance of modern mental health care and it worked. Of course some of the mentally ill were so disturbed they could not be housed in families’ home but most could. The above link takes on to one of the best all around explanations of this social experiment, namely a Wikipedia article. In modern times, hundreds of social researchers and mental health professionals have made pilgrimages to Gheel to observe and study this centuries-old social ‘experiment.’

In an article entitled, “Unique programs offer people with mental illness a place in their communities, published recently in the New Haven Register, a somewhat similar social good work was profiled in the Frederick VA area, with photographs from the Washington Post. I have excerpted the following pictures and captions from that article, taken by the Post photographer and given due credit.

David Weiss, who is interested in Buddhism, seeks peace and calmness at the Tibetan Meditation Center in Frederick, Md. A favorite mantra is “Pull a weed, plant a flower.”

David Weiss, who is interested in Buddhism, seeks peace and calmness at the Tibetan Meditation Center in Frederick, Md. A favorite mantra is “Pull a weed, plant a flower.” Washington Post photo/Katherine Frey By Colby Itkowitz, The Washington Post
David Weiss, above, who is successfully dealing with several serious mental health conditions, plays a song he wrote about his sister Faith while his cat, Bab-Babes, rests close by in Weiss’s one-bedroom apartment in Frederick, Maryland. Way Station provided Weiss with the apartment as well as a case manager.David Weiss, above, who is successfully dealing with several serious mental health conditions, plays a song he wrote about his sister Faith while his cat, Bab-Babes, rests close by in Weiss’s one-bedroom apartment in Frederick, Maryland. Way Station provided Weiss with the apartment as well as a case manager. Washington Post photo/Katherine Frey
The profiled recipient of this comprehensive program, though lives on his own, attends community college classes, receives his care through clinical services of the renowned Shepherd Enoch Pratt Hospital system and lots of what we would call “ACT team wrap around” services in his apartment with visiting clinicians and by appointments in a clinic in the traditional manner. But he is overseen and in touch frequently and regularly by caring clinicians. And he still has active schizophrenic symptoms of hallucinations. He has had, it sounds like very good, cognitive therapy to help him manage his hallucinations and live with them with little or no disruption to his everyday social functioning.
Most of all he has his dignity, continues his education part time at age 64, has his dignity and his own “digs,” or place to live on his own.
His clinic program and home base for his outpatient care is a unique organization/clinic called Way Station which works very much in nontraditional ways, with its emphasis on integrating and maintaining clients in the community. It is an American derivation of sorts of the Gheel approach and seems to work well for at least some patients. The article cited above gives much more detail and background and is worth reading.
But programs like this are still too few are far between. What is usually happening now in this country is that such programs are not yet the norm, not funded and largely nonexistent. Patients who do have their own families to live with upon discharge are placed in “placements,” which range from nursing homes to entrepreneurial small to large group homes run by operators all over the country. And there are usually few to none of the social outlets, programs, educational or otherwise to further prepare and integrate clients into the ordinary fabric of our society.
We still have these new remnants of the “welfare hotels,” that were so prevalent most famously of all in New York City where out of business hotels or projects buildings, were renovated more or less well, and persons on disability income or the discharged mentally ill were housed in small hotel rooms as apartments. These places were rife with crime. They still exist typically in very large cities and are often little better managed or integrated into active treatment or rehabilitation programs and have turned into wellsprings of crime and drugs and all that goes with those scourges.
But now the funding nationally with the perhaps certain repeal of Obamacare may seriously in the future be threatened. One would hope not, and that instead these sorts of programs are replicated nationwide with links to education, employers and the levels of outreach outpatient care that is needed. But again it all boils down to money in this country. It costs money and a fair amount of funds to sustain these people-labor intensive community-based programs. We have made substantial progress in moving patients out of the state hospitals. But our high recidivism rates, readmission rates, at all state hospitals in this country demonstrate clearly that the above minimal “placement,” endpoints we now rely on, are neither working all that well nor sufficient. Let us hope that gradually our national commitment to those needed these levels of services becomes the norm in the future.

Criminal Discharges When There Is No Outpatient Infrastructure

This subject and set of events is dated, and I offer my apologies to the reader. But this offering will serve to remind what can go wrong when in the course of the mental health reform process, things can go very wrong when the health care sector succumbs to criminal insufficiencies in their immediate continuum of care system, gives in ethically to a dishonest set of circumstances, does not fight back and falls back upon devising equally criminal ways of coping and inventiveness instead of advocating at any cost for their powerless patients who are dependent upon them for everything and anything they need to start over and begin the recovery process outside life in the  hospital.

Over two years ago the Los Angles Times reported on a story that I thought I would never see again in my practicing lifetime, that of “dumping patients.” I practiced in Arizonaover 15 years ago and saw the now extinct Charter hospitals do this when a patient’s health insurances would be exhausted after a month or long stay in the free-standing hospital and then be “discharged to the street” literally and abruptly. I was witness to this process as our hosptal system having a rather compassionate approach to psychiatric care would willingly accept these unfortunate and truly traumatized persons when their desperate families brought to our admission doorsteps, those of the Camelback hospitals, once a group of psychiatric hospitals in the Phoenix and Scottsdale areas, started in the 1940’s and in the days of affordable psychiatric healthcare, a nationally recognized system for its superb quality of care. These dumped persons from  the for-profit hospitals, still suffering acute symptoms such as severe unremitting depressions, suicidal impulses or pressing urges and thoughts, would be admitted no questions asked–at a loss to the hospital and to us attendings who took them on as inpatients, not expecting to be paid at all, and saw this as part of our responsibilities and part of universe of care we should offer out of our senses of service and ethics. I saw no practitioner at the Camelback system of hospitals ever turn down such a patient or take on their care resentfully.

The process of discharge in modern inpatients psychiatric care literally begins with a day or two of admission, not so that we can hurry up the process, but so that we can get a head start in lining up the needed outpatient resources, financial support, sometimes a place to live for a homeless person, sometimes family resources for a homeless minor, but always for a “best fit” between the patient and the all important team of team of therapist and psychiatrist. Often during the patient’s inpatient “do-over,” we would have the prospective therapist and future psychiatric come to visit the patient in person to have a get-acquainted session to make sure there was a good personality fit and rapport among them all, thereby giving often these persons brutalized by the “for profit” systems genuine hope that after discharge, whenver all arrived at a consensus decision made together, there would be the help ready in place to support them, giving them genuine hope instead of another trauma.

The article I came across recently in my constantly Google searchbot curating system for developments and trends inthe massive nationwide effort at changing our mental health care delivery system for all for the better was in the Los Angeles Times, entitled “S.F. sues to recoup costs for patients ‘dumped’ by Nevada hospital,” published ‘way back” in September 10, 2013. Its dated historical time of occurrence does not make it any less timely and happens to follow up on my previous post, which documented the emerging and alleged corruption of a privatized (read also for profit but sanctioned by the state who handled over inpatient psychiatric care to a national money making hospital system, to deliver service and make profit like the experiment with privatization of state prison systems who crowed about saving money to state legislatures, and of course pocketing the difference.) Well that did not go so well in a number of instances and the practice is still be re-examined in states who went in this direction.

The LA Times article though documented simply horrendous new heights of patient care callousness in patients at hospitals in Nevada, at discharge, from the Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital in Las Vegas, often by bus with no resources, not provision at all for any outpatient care or personnel to San Francisco. The investigation by the newspaper the Sacremento Bee, started small but uncovered a scam/scandal of monstrous proportions and scale. It was found that about FIFTEEN HUNDRED patients had been shipped off to cities and towns in California over the previous five years. The investigation at that time was headed up by San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera.

Those days were a unique confluence of corporate greed, and the growing appearance in the 1980’s of the seeds of the crisis we now face: the national shortage of adequate outpatient resources to replace which that hospital, especially the state public psychiatric hospitals could furnish even if at times, it bordered on “institutionalization.”

The solution is obvious and in everyone’s sight and radar. Outpatient resources and its infrastructure must be constructed nationwide, and governors and the no more taxes ideology of the present day and last 0 years must confront the reality that this costs money. Period. Good luck all you politicians trapped by your ideologies that do not square with reality. You need a paradigm shift in the biggest way and it will painful for your as you have to rethink your dearly held assumptions and shibboleths.