Mental health facilities in NC reflect a broken system
“Zero control” in the psychiatrist
In 2009, at a mental health funding hearing, state lawmakers were told that a quarter of all children in group homes or mental health facilities in the United States lived in North Carolina. State inspections show the Garner facility was also cited earlier that year for failing to prevent a 60-year-old patient with dementia from escaping; for the restraint of three boys between the ages of 13 and 16 without notifying the staff doctor; and that there are no master treatment plans for eight boys. What happens in these treatment facilities? This is the special report from The N&O.
When I was 15 I tried to kill myself and after that all I needed was somewhere safe.
Sitting in the hospital room, I asked my mother if we could pick up my favorite meal on the way home. My mother looked at me with sad eyes – eyes that told me she knew something I didn’t.
“You’re not going home today, honey,” she admitted.
I had no idea what she meant. Where did i go
Recent stories published by News & Observer and the USA Today North Carolina Network offer a disturbing glimpse into children’s mental health facilities in our state. They talk about prison-like facilities that abuse patients and don’t give them what they need most: treatment.
I was also a patient in a private, for-profit psychiatric facility, albeit in an acute inpatient program, and unfortunately my experiences were similar. Under North Carolina law, if a person is viewed as a threat to himself or others, a doctor can request a judge to order psychiatric treatment for them against their will. This process is known as an involuntary engagement and it meant that I was separated from my parents and transported to a mental health facility in a police car.
I tried to forget what happened there, but some memories stuck like superglue, tinged with shades of sadness and fear. I remember holding my breath as mentally distressed patients were showered with pills, sedated, and handcuffed. Standing shoulder to shoulder in the canteen while the staff counted the cutlery and prayed that no fork or knife would be missing because we would be searched one by one, if any. I sobbed during visiting hours with my parents because I was young and naive and still struggling to understand how the world could be so cruel.
Time passed slowly. We spent 16 hours a day cooped up in one big room. There weren’t any chairs so we sat on the floor in front of the TV. Pencils, blankets, and even groceries were not simply given; they were privileges that one could both earn and take. The staff, many of whom were verbally abusive, would verbally abuse us when we asked to use the toilet or drink some water. At night we slept without pillows and took cold showers.
Nothing seemed like it was meant to help us. The comprehensive treatment programs that were described to my parents and I when I arrived were only available in the brochures – I can’t remember speaking with a single therapist, let alone a doctor, for more than two or three minutes.
My mother recently told me that the psychiatrist I had been with for over a year told her to make me tougher after I tried to commit suicide.
“She has to learn that her actions have consequences,” he snapped.
The last thing I needed was a lesson, but I had learned it anyway. I learned the moment I saw my mother’s face in that hospital room and knew I wasn’t going home. I learned it again when I sat scared in the back seat of that patrol car, hugging myself every night in the mental health facility, wondering if I would be home in time for Christmas. The message couldn’t have been clearer: I had done something unspeakable. That was my punishment. That was my prison.
The most traumatic and formative experience of my life wasn’t my suicide attempt – that’s how I was treated afterwards. Seven years later, what happened there still haunts me, and it took me a long time to regain the courage to seek professional help. My experience may not be shared by every patient, but as I’ve seen and as the News & Observer and USA Today detailed, it happens often enough to indicate that the system is fundamentally broken – it leaves people like me anyone Day in the lurch.
North Carolina needs better oversight of its mental health facilities. Many of these centers have been cited by the state for repeated rule violations, but remain open. Why? What better solution for children in crisis than locking them up? With depression and suicidal behaviors in young people increase steeply, we cannot save them.
Paige Masten is a member of the editorial team.