WASHINGTON, DC -
A mother from Southern Maryland says her mentally challenged son has been warehoused in a local hospital emergency room since Monday because of a chronic shortage of bedspace in psychiatric hospitals.
Lilly Matheny is the worried mother. Her 28-year-old son, Charles Bunnel, has been a patient in the Emergency Department at MedStar Southern Maryland Hospital Center (in Clinton) since Monday. Not a hospital patient, a patient in the ER.
Charles is developmentally disabled and is bipolar. His mom says, at the moment, her son is psychologically unstable, but he's trapped here as an ER patient.
"The psychiatrist recommends Shepherd Pratt [psychiatric hospital] or a unit at Johns Hopkins," Matheny told us. "But there's no beds available. We've been here since Monday. Today's Friday. He's been in the ER. And the social workers are constantly trying to find a room available, and there's just no beds available in any psych unit. Anywhere."
Hospital officials could not speak about patient Charles Bunnell because of federal privacy regulations. But Michael Chiaramonte, the president of MedStar Southern Maryland Hospital Center, did grant us an interview on the larger problem.
"Our job," Chiaramonte explained, "is to... get the psychiatric patient 'off the ledge', as it were, and de-escalate and stabilize. And then the most important piece: find the most appropriate milieu for that patient. And there's simply not enough facility available in our state, [or] in Virginia as well."
Over the past 60 years, states have closed many mental hospitals, pushing the patients (and the costs) into communities. Doris Fuller, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center, said many mentally unstable people wind up being arrested.
"You know," said Fuller, "we're rolling officers out to pick up people who are in crisis. They take them to the ER. In most places, [the responding officers are] required to sit there with the patient... sit there the entire time until the person is hospitalized."
Fuller's organization estimates there are about 45,000 psychiatric beds in the U.S. The Treatment Advocacy Center believes about three times that many beds are needed.
Virginia officials are investigating whether the lack of nearby psych beds played a role in the attempted murder of State Sen. Creigh Deeds on Tuesday. Police believe Deeds' adult son, Gus, stabbed the politician, then took his own life with a rifle.
One day before the assault there was an apparently unsuccessful effort to find a psychiatric bed for Gus Deeds.
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