Psychiatric Unit Refuses Patient Over Safety Concerns

On April 9, a 16-year-old boy walked into his high school armed with two 8-inch kitchen knives. He stabbed 21 people, including students and a security guard, before he was stopped and arrested.

Those who knew Alex Hribal described him as quiet and nice. They didn't believe he was bullied. In fact, most people said they would never have pictured violence from this kid. His attorney requested a psychiatric evaluation for the boy who planned and carried out the attack at Franklin Regional High School in Pennsylvania.

Now, a judge has ordered that the teen be transferred from a juvenile detention facility to a psychiatric hospital. However, the psychiatric hospital that agreed to accept the boy has now refused to admit him, saying that they aren't equipped to handle the safety concerns presented by the troubled teen.

At least eight other psychiatric facilities have already rejected the teen.

The judge in Hribal's case says that the court order stands, and defense counsel is looking at all options to provide inpatient psychiatric care to the boy.

Nine psychiatric hospitals have denied admission to the teen because of safety concerns. But aren't psychiatric facilities designed to help those suffering from severe psychiatric conditions? If the boy is better off awaiting trial in a psychiatric unit rather than a holding cell, shouldn't there be a psychiatric facility equipped to take him?

Clearly, the nation has a serious problem when it comes to the mentally ill in the criminal justice system. Either we lock up treatable patients in prison in the name of justice, or we release them back into the public without appropriate care and monitoring.

In June, Daniel St. Hubert, a diagnosed schizophrenic was released from prison without monitoring, despite concerns from his sister that he would pose a danger to himself and others if not forced to take his medication. St. Hubert had spent time in prisons and psychiatric hospitals for crimes including the attempted murders of his mother and his ex-girlfriend in separate incidents.

Within a week, the man is suspected of stabbing at least 3 people, including two young children in an elevator. Two of the stabbing victims were killed.

Earlier this year, the Treatment Advocacy Center released a report that indicated that there are 10 times as many mentally ill people in prisons than in state mental health hospitals: 356,268 inmates with severe mental illnesses incarcerated in prisons and jails as compared to 35,000 patients with the same illnesses in state mental health hospitals. Mother Jones reports that an attempt to "de-institutionalize" the mentally ill has in fact had the reverse effect: " . . . the United States has fully returned to the 18th-century model of incarcerating the mentally ill in correctional institutions rather than treating them in health care facilities like any other sick people."

Some may wonder why it matters where our mentally ill are locked up, as long as the rest of the public is safe. It matters because mental illness may be treatable--because it is an illness that deserves treatment instead of punishment wherever possible. It matters because the mentally ill in prison are subject to many more difficulties than prisoners without mental illness, according to the Mother Jones article:

  • More likely to become victims of sexual assault
  • Over-represented in solitary confinement
  • More likely to commit suicide
  • They spend significantly more time in jail because they have difficulty following rules

The nation's prisons have become de facto mental facilities, yet these are penal institutions equipped for punishing offenders, not hospitals equipped for treating the ill. And when mental hospitals start refusing patients with psychiatric conditions, the system breaks down completely, leaving no respite or care for the mentally ill. It becomes bedlam, in the truest sense of the word.

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