Local News

Patient advocates: N.C.'s mental health system needs fixing

Posted August 28, 2008

— Recent reports of patient abuse and neglect at Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro is more proof that the state's troubled mental health-care system needs restructuring and more funding, patient advocates say.

"There isn't a system of psychiatric facilities in this state," said Vicki Smith, executive director of Disability Rights North Carolina. "What we have are individual hospitals."

Smith said there needs to be a consistent standard level of care across the state's four psychiatric hospitals and that right now, hospitals only try to meet the minimum standards of care to receive funding.

She blamed that on job vacancies, lack of training, lack of supervision and oversight and inadequate pay. Many state agencies also rely on a temporary work force, and that means the quality of patient care is not always the same, she said.

Better recruiting and retention are needed, she said, to attract more qualified and attractive job candidates.

It's something the state's mental health oversight committee also suggested at a meeting earlier this week. John Tote, with the Mental Health Association in North Carolina, says the General Assembly needs to make more funding available.

Advocates believe Health and Human Services Secretary Dempsey Benton has taken aggressive steps to overhaul the system since taking over last year.

For example, he's starting to hold workers more accountable, Smith said. His recent decision to close a ward at Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro in the wake of a patient's death sends a big message, she said, partly because there aren't enough beds for patients there.

On Thursday, Benton said the Division of Mental Health must find an independent hospital management firm to evaluate Cherry Hospital.

However, Smith and Tote are concerned that any progress Benton is making could suffer a setback when a new governor is elected in November and if a new DHHS secretary is appointed.

"Four months left scares me," Smith said. "What concerns me is that with a new administration, the tendency will be to study the problems."

That would not be true if the gubernatorial candidates are already investigating and discussing the problems the mental health system faces. Advocates say they have not heard any specific plans from either candidate so far, however.

"Folks are going to be behind the eight ball, and if that's the case we'll see a perpetuation of the situation," Tote said.


This story is closed for comments.

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  • finesse187 Aug 29, 2008

    As a person who works in the mental health field I certainly agree that the system is in dire need of serious change. I don't work for a state facility but a privately owned group home and I will be the first to say that the pay needs to be increased and people in uppper management just need to care more about the consumers. I've worked for the same company for a little over 4 years and have yet to get a raise. No people don't obtain jobs in this field to become millionaires but it would be nice to be appreciated sometimes.
    When mental health did major cutbacks last year or a couple of years ago it really hurt consumers and companies as well. I just wish they would find a way to get this money back but I doubt it will happen.

  • jsanders Aug 29, 2008

    Doing "reform" halfway has been a problem:

  • krisandbruiser Aug 29, 2008

    exxe 75 - I couldn't have said it better myself. When they privatized the system, they failed not only our mentally ill persons, but mentally handicapped as well. And yes, Steve Crisp, family needs to be involved in advocating for their family member. We have advocated for our brain-injured daughter since birth and will continue to do so until this mental health system is revamped, corrected, and serves the people the way it is supposed to. I agree there are many non-trained personnel, but I also commend the personnel (like our daughter's group home manager) who is caring, compassionate, and well-educated in the system

  • diogenes Aug 29, 2008

    The Mental Health Association in North Carolina is a health care system advocate--and has always been. This organization and Mr. Tote was one of the leading proponents for these changes in N.C. that we have in place today. It appears they want to call themselves "patient advocates" now. Aren't lobbyists amusing.

  • exxe75 Aug 29, 2008

    NC abandoned mental health patients when it privatized mental health care. Most patients cannot afford the treatment/therapy, and tend to not seek help. This is not good for the patient nor for society. The costs have to be incurred by the few facilities that are still struggling to provide services, and often with inadequately or untrained personnel. Private services, unlike state run services, can pick and choose who they treat and what to treat. Now the feds and NC want to act like the police and investigate situations like the one at Cherry Hospital. Well, too little to late. This is a precedent that you will see to come, not to mention the situations like this that have already come to pass. You can't contain the inferno by using a lawn sprinkler. Its time for the whole system to be re-evaluated again. It's obvious that the NC plan to privatize mental health care has been an utter failure.

  • patrick85ed Aug 29, 2008

    "There isn't a system of psychiatric facilities in this state," ....really?

    How about NCDOT, or NCDOC, or any other agency of the state for that matter.

  • amyrn Aug 29, 2008

    Sad to say, but quite a few family members abandon their mentally ill relatives.

  • Steve Crisp Aug 28, 2008

    There used to be another widely used term for patient advocates. It was called family.