THE TRUTH OF THE MATTER: Where do we turn?


Erica Marthage, the state's attorney for Bennington County, was quoted recently in the Rutland Herald, "This is the worst example of the falling down of the mental-health system. This provides one of the worst examples that I've seen."

What she was referring to was how a registered sex offender patient, under the care of the state mental health department, was released only to be discovered as a resident at a Bennington nursing home.

Vermont has a vexing mental health problem that our legislature, the administration, the health profession, law enforcement, the courts, and, of course, Vermont families, are ill-equipped to cope with. The difficulties associated with it are not just limited to Vermont, they are nationwide.

The crisis, in part, had its genesis decades ago when mental health professionals were not recruited by local and regional hospitals -- there was little financial incentive in which to do so.

Our hospitals, as the receiving sites for mental health patients of families with an acute mental health member have had no alternative but to transport a mental health patient to the state's Waterbury 52-bed institution. Most of Vermont's hospitals had no psychiatric services in place. This was and still is the status in Bennington County. In August 2011, Tropical Storm Irene destroyed the state's only mental health hospital.

The opening of the new 25-bed, Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin will not happen until July or August, three years after the closure of the hsopital in Waterbury. In the meantime several regional hospitals have each established mental health departments comprising a half dozen or so beds.

The Brattleboro Retreat, under tremendous operating pressure servicing its existing patient census, is the current stand-in for the Waterbury hospital. At other hospitals, it is their emergency rooms that are the holding sites for acute mental health patients in need of emergency care as well as long-term in-patient hospitalization. Three- to four-day waits in the ER are not uncommon until such time that a psychiatric bed is freed up at one of the regional institutions, if at all.

To add to this complex and dire situation is the illegal and prescription drug addiction crisis that has engulfed Vermont. The crisis went national, after Governor Shumlin's recent State of the State address -- substantially all of which was devoted to Vermont's illegal drug problem. It has been noted that many of the drug users, in addition to their addiction problem, have an underlying mental health issue that's not being addressed. And how can it with so little in the way of treatment facilities?

If the drug problem was not the serious crisis that it is we can add to it the domestic abuse crisis that is prevalent in so many of Vermont's cities, towns and villages. Up until recently, we have asked our law enforcement agencies to deal with the problem. The result in many encounters has been tragic -- for the individual with the mental health problem, the families and the police personnel. Some police agencies are now resorting to the use of a mental health professional to accompany them on domestic crises intervention.

Also, there is another constituency that requires mental health treatment -- the returning war veterans with PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI). The impetus behind the Vermont House Bill (H.555) is to recognize TBI as a mental health problem and not to look to the legal system for a solution.

Vermont has been blessed that it has not had to deal with the tragedies that have fallen upon so many other states these past few years -- the shooting massacres that have taken place in shopping malls, theaters, colleges and schools. Many of the individuals who wrought the carnage upon the innocent were themselves beset with mental illness -- gone untreated.

Ever since T.ropical Storm Irene devastated the state's only mental health hospital we have been treating its replacement as if it is not a priority -- in timing, in completion and funding. If this is our response in building one hospital -- what will it take to get additional facilities, that are needed to accommodate the exponential crisis in mental health?

To be fair, the mental health crisis is not solely for the administration and legislature to solve. However, we cannot address the problem by working at the fringe and with minor fixes each year and then say "Well, we did something."

Governor Shumlin must call all of the stakeholders together and collectively develop short-term as well as long-term solutions. Vermont families should not have to ask, "Where do we turn to?"

Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington.


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