Jul 19, 2021
Virginia has stopped admitting new patients at five of its eight state mental hospitals. Staffing shortages have created severe safety issues for the patients and the staff. There are more than 1,500 patient-support staff vacancies across the state. In just the last few weeks, more than 100 people have resigned from Virginia’s state mental hospitals, citing unsafe working conditions and long hours.
It’s not just staffing shortages. All the hospitals are running at or near capacity. Meaning they are dangerously overcrowded AND short-staffed.
There have been 63 serious injuries to patients and staff since July 1 alone, according to the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS). This situation has been brewing for years.
There are several factors that have led to this crisis. Not least of which is the fact that Virginia has put precious little resources into community-based mental health services (clinics, crisis centers, hotlines). This means people don’t get the help they need when they need it, they reach a crisis point and wind up needing to be hospitalized. Little money goes into preventing hospitalizations in the first place.
In 2014 legislation was passed in Virginia commonly known as its “bed of last resort” law. Under this code, Virginia’s psychiatric hospitals are required to admit patients after an eight-hour period if a bed can’t be found at another facility, including private hospitals with behavioral units. Private facilities can cherry pick and not take in complicated or aggressive patients.
The result is not only skyrocketing admissions but an increase in admissions of seriously ill patients into dangerously overcrowded and understaffed hospitals—where no one is safe, and healing and recovery are not possible.
The hospitals were losing staff prior to the pandemic but started hemorrhaging staff after COVID swept through the hospitals. Many staff left to protect themselves from COVID. Filling the vacancies has been difficult because the pay is so low, literally poverty wages, and the working conditions are so bad with long hours and overcrowded, high patient to staff ratios.
Virginia’s mental health system has been allowed to crumble over the years to the point of near collapse. Hospitals are hardly even warehouses for the mentally ill. And now they are not taking new admissions? So, people can languish in emergency rooms. Or be left on their own to commit suicide, or injure or kill other people.
All this at a time when there is a mental health emergency in this country, exacerbated by the extreme social isolation brought on by the mishandling of the pandemic. Depression, anxiety, addiction, suicide all have jumped up dramatically. And Virginia is leaving these people and those around them out in the cold!