Holiday Madness

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

Konigsberg explains that even if a person is off restriction and able to regain his shoelaces, the laces need to come from HCPC. "Say we give that person the shoelaces. We don't know they have two pair, and if that person becomes suicidal and we only take away the one pair?"

But Hayes still can't figure out how he deserved the treatment he got. "I spent the whole weekend obsessing over that one incident. It was miserable. I still to this day don't know which one of us did something wrong, whether it was me or Kelly."

Hayes says the HCPC doctors are good but "can't spend a lot of time with you. It's like a cattle call. You go in for 15 minutes and basically it's for medicine maintenance only."

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.

All in all, though, Hayes is grateful to HCPC. Not only did routine tests done there discover that he had a chronic illness, but he says HCPC was the right place for him to be when they delivered the news.

"I found out I was HIV-positive in there, and that was one of the good things to come out. I would have never known. That's the best place to be where they watch people for suicides and stuff like that because this is depressing information."

But Christina Gonzales wasn't as happy about her stay. The 28-year-old had been fighting with the father of her two-year-old son and was depressed. It was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and she called the cops for help "because I was scared and I didn't know what to do."

She told them she needed to talk to someone and asked for a number, but they said they could take her somewhere.

"So I said, 'Hey, this will be just for a day, right? I'll be able to come back home?' And they said, 'Well, yeah.' So they took me to Ben Taub. When I got there I felt like: Why am I here? I feel like I'm in trouble, and I haven't done anything wrong. And then you're making me stay here. And that's when they admitted me to HCPC. It was involuntary."

She was there for the next week. Gonzales told the doctor that she'd been depressed for a really long time and needed counseling. She got medicine, but not much else.

"They didn't help me with someone to talk to," she says. She's thinking about getting back in touch with MHMRA or a counselor at her mother's church, maybe trying for couples therapy, but for right now, she's just going to keep taking the meds, which are making her feel better.

According to Betsy Schwartz, president of Mental Health America of Greater Houston, a mental health advocacy group, research shows that a combination of counseling and medication achieves the best results. Still, Schwartz says, a lot of primary care physicians prescribe anti­depressants with no therapy, and people get along fine. "It's totally an individual thing."

Still, someone who walks into a mental health emergency room expecting a quick turnaround may be disappointed. Schwartz says there's no silver bullet.

Kelly Robertson gets good marks from her students on the UH "rate my professors" Web site. Students say she piles on the work but makes things interesting. One predicts that she should get even better with more experience.

That'll have to wait for a while. She's taking a leave of absence, wants to get things settled down. As she wrote to the Joint Commission, the outcome from her experiences at HCPC and NPC "were episodes of stress and anxiety similar to PTSD," as well as "a distrust of the mental health system."

During the time she was there, she asked Switzer to bring in her students' papers to grade. But they were stapled, and HCPC policy is to restrict access to any potentially hazardous items (someone can use staples to scratch his or someone else's eyes out).

And yet, the patients' rights packet she was handed had several staples in it. ("An error on our part," Konigsberg says).

Robertson is better prepared for Christmas. She finished her shopping early, and both she and Switzer agreed to take a laid-back approach.

But there are landmines ahead. "There's a lot of research that shows that after the first of the year, there's an even greater risk for depression," Schwartz says, "because of letdowns from the holidays or regrets from last year or anticipation of next year. By Valentine's Day, I think it's better."

Robertson and some other people got locked into HCPC over a holiday weekend and are saying it shouldn't have happened. Maybe they're right and maybe they're not. And granted, this isn't a column describing how mental health professionals released a person who then went out and killed himself or others.

But what anyone could figure out is that counseling needs an overhaul at both NPC and HCPC. And that even if people are disturbed, they deserve to be treated with dignity.

And saying that a tech couldn't have kicked a cot because too many people would have seen it flies in the face of the countless lingering cases of bad behavior that have been uncovered in mental hospitals.

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