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Tragedies Underscore Crisis in U.S. Public Mental Health System: National Advocacy Organization Demands Reforms

WASHINGTON, Dec. 2 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- In the wake of the deaths of two persons in public psychiatric institutions - highlighting a pattern of abuse and neglect of those who have psychiatric disabilities - a national coalition of such individuals is calling on the incoming Obama administration and the nation's top mental health officials to institute widespread, substantive reforms in America's mental health treatment system. These would include raising standards and regulatory expectations, and identifying and funding pilot programs to demonstrate best practices in psychiatric emergency, inpatient and community-based care.

The death of Steven Sabock, a 50-year-old man diagnosed with bipolar disorder who died on April 29 in a North Carolina state psychiatric institution after he had choked on medication - while, nearby, hospital employees, ignoring his plight, entertained themselves with cards and TV - is just one example of the dangerous dysfunction of the public mental health system, said Dan Fisher, M.D., Ph.D., of the National Coalition of Mental Health Consumer/Survivor Organizations (NCMHCSO).

"The death of Steven Sabock at Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro, N.C., which made headlines last week, is only one tragedy in the tragic history of the American public mental health system - a system that the 2003 report of the President's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health described as 'in shambles,'" said Fisher, a Commission member. "The Obama administration should reconstitute the Commission with a focus on specific outcomes, such as improving psychiatric emergency care."

After Sabock's death, three hospital employees were dismissed and five others were suspended for less than a week. However, no one has been criminally charged.

Sabock's death is not an isolated incident. In June 2008, Esmin Green, who had been involuntarily committed, collapsed in the psychiatric emergency room of New York City's Kings County Hospital Center after having waited for a bed for nearly 24 hours. She lay sprawled on the floor for more than an hour before the medical staff took any notice - and that notice consisted of someone's prodding her dead body with a foot, according to The New York Times.

Shortly thereafter, the New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services (NYAPRS) convened a series of regional Psychiatric Emergency Care Forums across the state, bringing together local hospitals, local and state mental health officials, peers (people with psychiatric disabilities), service providers and family members.

The forums have yielded many promising recommendations, including expanding low-cost alternatives to psychiatric emergency rooms such as peer-run warm lines and crisis respite care, improving staff response via training and higher standards, reforming federal and state certification and regulatory standards, expanding access to community mental health services beyond normal business hours, enhancing police training in crisis de-escalation and other strategies, and preparing peers to better anticipate and manage crises via training and support for the development of personal crisis/safety plans.

"These tragedies underscore the great crisis that exists in our nation's mental health care systems. While the challenge to overhaul them is daunting, we know much more today than in the past about what needs to be done," said Harvey Rosenthal, executive director of NYAPRS, a NCMHCSO member organization. "We're calling on the incoming Obama administration to recommit federal mental health reform efforts that incorporate and implement recommendations from untapped experts, people living with psychiatric disabilities like us."

The National Coalition of Mental Health Consumer/Survivor Organizations ( works to ensure that people diagnosed with mental illnesses have a major voice in the development and implementation of health care, mental health, and social policies at the state and national levels, empowering people to recover and lead a full life in the community. The coalition currently consists of statewide organizations run by people with psychiatric histories in 32 states, including the District of Columbia, as well as the three federally funded consumer-run national technical assistance centers.

The New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services ( is dedicated to improving services and social conditions for people with psychiatric disabilities by promoting their recovery, rehabilitation and rights.

    Daniel Fisher

    Harvey Rosenthal

SOURCE National Coalition of Mental Health Consumer/Survivor Organizations
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