MONTPELIER, Vt. — The remnants of Hurricane Irene did what policymakers hadn’t been able to accomplish for more than a decade — close the state’s antiquated psychiatric hospital.
The storm flooded much of the state Aug. 28, including the complex containing the Vermont State Hospital in the north-central town of Waterbury, but is still raining down on the mental health system.
It has been felt in the emergency rooms and medical wards of community hospitals, where the state’s most acutely mentally ill residents, who formerly would have gone to the Waterbury, have put new stresses on staff.
“I have witnessed a hospital floor I used to be proud to work on … become an acute, chaotic, stressful environment that is not conducive to productive treatment for any patient,” Christina Sclafani, a registered nurse at Burlington’s Fletcher Allen Health Care hospital, said in recent testimony to the Legislature.
It’s been felt by county sheriffs and their deputies, who find themselves transporting the mentally ill to far corners of the state in search of care, only to end up standing guard round the clock for days in hospital rooms, waiting for a psychiatric bed to open up.
“I’ve got a great staff, but they’re not therapists, they’re not mental health counselors and I don’t want them to be,” said Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark. When the mental health system has a patient for which it can’t find a placement, “someone hits the default button and the sheriff gets called.”
Emergency room doctors from other hospitals have told lawmakers of patients assaulting staff members or making threats but being left unguarded when the officer standing watch is called away for an emergency.
Vermont’s mental health system had been in cool crisis for more than a decade. The Vermont State Hospital had so many problems it was decertified and had lost federal funding in 2003. Two patient suicides that year were blamed out outdated features and staff failings. One woman hanged herself with an overlooked shoelace, and a man hanged himself with a belt secured in a gap between a bookcase and a wall.
A succession of governors looked for ways to close the hospital, without success.
Gov. Peter Shumlin says he wants to turn the now-hot crisis into an opportunity. He has launched a plan to replace the 54-bed Waterbury hospital with a new, smaller locked facility, and expanded psychiatric wards at two hospitals that have such units. He also wants to move patients deemed eligible to less secure settings like group homes.