Holiday Madness

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

Dr. Daryl Knox, medical director for MHMRA's psychiatric crisis programs, says NPC doesn't want to hospitalize anyone. "Actually, we're always trying to get people out. The majority of people who come here do not go to HCPC."

"Sometimes we have no option but to hospitalize," Knox says. "The doctor may feel that this person is at some risk of hurting themselves or hurting others."

"Once you're in the hospital, you're our responsibility," Konigsberg says. "If you say you want to go, that you feel all better, but we know you are not all better, then we do the involuntary commitment process for you. It's for your safety."

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.

Attorney Savoie puts it another way: "If you answer one of those magic questions the wrong way, you are no longer free to leave. Many people just don't understand that."

To be fair, depression wasn't the be-all and end-all of the problems Robertson and Hatton were experiencing. Robertson says she was having some "suicidal ideation," and Hatton, who hadn't been on her prescribed medicine for two months, says her older son says she told him she had a gun and was going to kill herself and her family — statements she denies making. But put together the missing meds, the fact that an aunt and uncle of hers had recently died within three days of each other and that she had a big fight with one of her sons — it's understandable that the mental health professionals wanted to take a closer look.

Konigsberg says any patient can ask for the patient advocate. All patients have phone privileges and phone numbers are posted on the wall.

"We've even had patients call the police and tell them they're being kidnapped here, and the police come," Konigsberg says.

But Robertson says she didn't call because she was afraid if HCPC found out, it wouldn't let her out. Her boyfriend agrees. "We had the feeling that if we called the advocacy number, we'd never be allowed to leave," Switzer says. (Konigsberg denies that there would ever be retaliation.)

Instead, what Robertson did was ask HCPC employees about how to get in touch with the court system and how to reach the constable's office that serves the commitment papers. No one had the numbers.

Konigsberg insists that all the information any patient needs to know is included in the patient's information packet handed out upon arrival at HCPC. But a review of that packet shows there are no court or constable numbers listed there.

Tammie Hatton actually stayed in as a voluntary patient. She says she wanted to leave, but figured "if I'd have thrown a fit to leave, then they would have pulled in a judge." Her description of group therapy:

"The group session consists of you sit down, you make a goal for the day and at 8:30 at night you sit back down and you say if you reached your goal. We'd make up anything."

At NPC, Robertson says, she saw one psych tech "violently kicking a patient's cot to awaken him." Knox says his staff isn't perfect, but it's hard to believe that someone would do that on an open floor, in full view of so many other people.

At HCPC, Robertson says, patients were subject to cold showers and wrong dosages of their medicines (she spotted that she was being handed three times the dose she should be receiving), and that "techs frequently walked in on patients without knocking, and I know of one incident where they saw one patient undressing."

She believes everything moved slowly there because HCPC was understaffed for the holidays. (Konigsberg denies this. "We are a 24-7-365. Christmas Day I'll be here. Christmas Day we'll run group. There's no difference between a holiday and a regular day.")

Following her release, Robertson sent a complaint letter to the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations. In its reply, the Joint Commission wrote that if there was an investigation, "current public information policy precludes us from providing you with the specific results."

Adam Hayes stayed at HCPC during some of the same time as Robertson, and says he had "a positive experience" during a two-week stay.

The 31-year-old administrative assistant put himself in HCPC voluntarily after he had a tough breakup, had been off his prescribed medication and was self-medicating with other drugs.

"I was able to get on the right medicine. I was able to be kind of protected in a little shelter for two weeks up on that floor."

He didn't see the benefits in group, though. "Group therapy is really ridiculous. This was basically, 'Let's get you in a group and baby-sit you for an hour.'"

Robertson and others had a tougher stay, first, because they weren't there voluntarily and, second, because they bucked the system, Hayes says. Caseworkers were nice, but stretched too thin, and techs were really nice, or sometimes not.

"One was rude to me and Kelly. She got an extra set of shoestrings, and she got them for me, and the tech came over and literally snatched them out of my hand and said, 'No, we'll put these up for you, Kelly.' And I couldn't figure out whether the tech was upset with me or if the tech was upset with Kelly."

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