May 12, 2003 – Testifying before the Senate Health, Hospitals and Human Services Committee on Thursday, Dr. Olaf Hendricks, chief psychiatrist at Juan F. Luis Hospital, said he could not recall any previous instance of mental health being discussed in a legislative forum.
What Hendricks contributed to the discussion was not encouraging. "The Virgin Islands is 25 years behind where we were 20 years ago" in mental health care, he said, and the situation is "dire."
Chris Finch, director of Lutheran Social Services of the Virgin Islands, agreed. Back then, he said, referring to available mental health care, "we didn't think it was perfect … But looking through the prism today, we didn't know how good we had it. And it really is a tragedy that it has been allowed to deteriorate to the extent that it has."
None of the other witnesses contradicted that view, pointing out repeatedly a lack of adequate services and a lack of funding to do anything about it.
Now, Hendricks told the committee, his department at Luis Hospital is under a directive to create a forensic psychiatric unit with no funding identified to cover the costs. And so, he said, the money will have to come out of funds earmarked for medications for mental health patients.
Hendricks' counterpart at Roy L. Schneider Hospital, Dr. Derek Spencer, had no better news. He said available mental health services at RLS are "fragmented, uncoordinated and, by and large, inadequate."
Spencer also noted that a number of not-for-profit agencies offer mental health-care services and said that these services should be coordinated with those offered by the government in order to make the best use of funding.
Human Services Commissioner Sedonie Halbert said growing numbers of children and adolescents with mental health problems are being referred to her department from Territorial Court — and that her staff is incapable of providing them adequate care.
Halbert advocated the development of early-childhood diagnostic and treatment programs to reduce the need for long-term services, additional funding for the Mental Health Division to develop a strong support system of services, and expansion of the Therapeutic Foster Care Program to provide a nurturing environment for more children and adolescents with emotional disorders.
"Funding has been a constant refrain; we don't have enough money," Charles Gallows, vice chair of the V.I. Mental Health and Planning Council, said. But, he added, "it's not only a question of the public sector, it's also a question of the private sector. We have to have some sort of program where both are working together."
Sen. Douglas E. Canton Jr., committee chair, said in a release that the circumstances laid out brought home the need for a comprehensive V.I. mental health plan. He said such a plan should combine "the best of what government and the private sector can offer, with a new responsibility — that when dealing with the problems of mental health, consistency must be the rule of thumb."
Gallows told the senators: "We look at mental health as being something separate from the rest of the community," but in fact "it impacts public safety, it impacts family health, and it impacts all aspects of the community."
Canton termed Thursday's hearing "a stepping stone in creating the right atmosphere for the mentally ill." Steps to come, he said, will include "changing and challenging stereotypes of the mentally ill and identifying funding to develop and institute a strategic plan of action that improves the lives of this segment of the population."
Committee members present were Canton and Sens. Norman Jn Baptiste, Luther Renee and Raymond "Usie" Richards. Sens. Lorraine Berry, Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg and Emmett Hansen II were excused.
Publisher's note : Like the St. Thomas Source now? Find out how you can love us twice as much — and show your support for the islands' free and independent news voice … click here.