Shortage of Care Looming for Georgia's Mentally Ill; NO ADEQUATE CHOICES as State Closes Mental Hospitals, Some Clients Have Nowhere to Turn. NEW APPROACH Expert Agrees That Communities Need Treatment Options

Article excerpt

Byline: WALTER C. JONES

ATLANTA - For Bonnie Moore and other parents of children with mental illness, daily struggles are challenging enough, but many fear they're reaching a breaking point because the state is releasing patients from regional mental hospitals.

It's not that these parents want to see their children continue to spend decades institutionalized. It's their worry that once released there won't be adequate treatment options in their community.

The closure of Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital in Rome later this year is the latest action to spawn widespread concern among patient families.

"I get calls from parents, sometimes three and four daily, saying 'Where do I go? What do I do? Where do I turn?' " Moore told a recent legislative subcommittee. "In this day and time, right now, there's not the services we need in the community."

While the Rome facility will become the second state hospital to close in recent years, patients are being discharged from the other state hospitals that aren't slated to close. In Augusta and Savannah, for instance, hospital staff are constantly searching for candidates for release.

Patient advocates have called for years for the transfer of services from in-patient to outpatient, but it took the federal government to make it happen. The settlement of one lawsuit requires the state to find homes each year for 150 of the 700 patients with developmental disabilities, what used to be called mental retardation. A more recent settlement of another federal suit is prompting the discharge of patients with other mental disorders such as multiple personality disorder and schizophrenia.

Parents and advocates like Moore want patients living at home or in group homes.

"It concerns me when we have people who are chronically mentally ill and the only place they can go is the hospital," she told a House Human Resources Subcommittee meeting Wednesday at the Capitol.

Frank Shelp, Georgia commissioner of behavioral health and developmental disabilities, agrees communities should have treatment options besides hospitalization. Half of all involuntary hospital admissions are unnecessary, he said. They happen because the courts, law enforcement and social workers think of the hospitals before they consider alternatives, he said.

He speaks passionately about the problems with state hospitals, such as the fact that the state's newest hospital building is 40 years old. Twice he has fired two entire shifts of staff at separate hospitals for patient neglect and mistreatment.

In his first days on the job at the department created 18 months ago, he learned of a staffer who had struck a patient. He was ready to prosecute until an assistant informed him of a legal exception for mental health workers. …