Holiday Madness

Looking for quick help, some patients instead found themselves locked in a county mental health unit and not going anywhere.

For Kelly Robertson, it all started stupidly enough with a fight on Twitter with her boyfriend. She wanted to leave town; he didn't. She went home, argued with him face-to-face and had a meltdown.

She'd been diagnosed with depression four months earlier, was in a doctor's care and on medication, but it was clear on Thanksgiving Eve that her emotions were careening out of her control.

Her regular doctor was on holiday, and whoever was on call didn't know her, so Robertson reasoned that she needed to look elsewhere for help.

Kelly Robertson says she was trapped in the mental health care system.
Monica Fuentes
Kelly Robertson says she was trapped in the mental health care system.

The 29-year-old assistant professor and technical director at the University of ­Houston-Downtown called police. They came to her apartment and told her that she should go to the NeuroPsychiatric Center at Ben Taub Hospital, the mental health emergency facility. Her boyfriend, Mike Switzer, took her over and they arrived about 1 a.m. Thanksgiving Day.

Robertson thought she would talk to a doctor, maybe get some different medication and be on her way. During her conversation with an NPC psychiatrist, Robertson agreed to voluntarily commit herself; she thought she'd be in a day at most; her boyfriend heard "two."

Around 9 a.m., when she still hadn't received any medication or treatment and had started feeling better on her own, Robertson wanted to leave.

"They wouldn't let me," she says. Instead, they involuntarily committed her on the spot and ordered her transferred to the Harris County Psychiatric Center, a 250-bed facility. If, as her attorney says, she had just slipped out in all those hours of waiting, what followed never would have happened.

HCPC, like other mental health facilities in Texas, has 72 hours to bring an involuntary commitment before a judge. Robertson thought, okay, worst case scenario, she'd be out in three days.

But weekends and holidays don't count, she found out. Unless HCPC let her go earlier, the first she could be considered for release would be the following Wednesday, a full week after she went in, she says.

"I tried to reason with them, that I was there voluntarily and they should let me go."

NPC, part of the Mental Health Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County, remained adamant. Around 11:30 that morning, Robertson and other patients were transferred in unmarked cars to HCPC. She spent the rest of that day and the four days that followed drawing pictures, playing cards and sleeping; she even made a graphic comic of her adventures. She missed Thanksgiving dinner with her boyfriend's family and hers. Bill Savoie, an attorney friend, tried to intervene on her behalf and basically got nowhere. Her own doctor talked by telephone with the HCPC psychiatrist, Dr. Alejandra Suzuki, who refused to remand her to her custody. (HCPC says this isn't possible; an outside doctor doesn't have privileges).

When she saw Dr. Suzuki again on Monday morning, Robertson was finally released. She got a referral and a 25 mg increase in her Zoloft dosage.

Thirty-nine-year-old Tammie Hatton of New Caney was in at the same time for depression and feels a similar sense of betrayal.

"I went in voluntarily to NPC. They said I would get individual counseling, I would get group counseling. When I got there, the nurse said, 'Oh no, we don't do that; the only thing we do is get you set up on your drugs and we get you out of here.' I was very angry. I told them, 'I came in here voluntarily; I want out.' They said, 'You're here under depression; you're not going anywhere.'"

Over at HCPC it was more of the same, Hatton says.

"I was told by the nurse they put you on your meds and get you level. That's not what I need. I need to talk to someone about why I'm depressed. She said, 'Well, we don't do that here.'"

What they and several other patients say they found out that weekend was:

• Voluntary commitment does not mean you have the right to walk back out if a doctor believes you are a danger to yourself or others.

• NPC and HCPC aren't the best places to head to if you are ­looking for a lengthy heart-to-heart.

• Time spent with an HCPC psychiatrist is usually limited to ten to 15 minutes and falls along the order of medication adjustment.

• There are a lot of rules at HCPC, and they seem to change all the time depending on what tech is working. Most techs are nice, but some are rude and mean and seem to regard HCPC as a military operation or a prison.

• Group therapy at HCPC is worthless.

• If you have any hope of getting out, you'd better discard whatever persona you walked in with and be agreeable, happy (but not too) and definitely a nonaggressive master of disguise.

• Above all, try not to have mental problems right before a holiday unless you're looking forward to a long stay.

Geri Konigsberg is the longtime spokeswoman for HCPC and, of course, she and her organization see these things from a very different perspective.

Just the fact that former patients are out there complaining about their stay points to the irredeemable truth that they are alive to do so. NPC and HCPC kept these people safe while addressing their most immediate needs.

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