Gov. Kenneth E. Mapp has declared a Mental Health Care State of Emergency, according to a statement issued late Friday night from Government House.
Noting the need to facilitate immediate emergency delivery of acute and chronic mental health services throughout the territory, the statement said, the governor is temporarily suspending statutory and contractual limitations on conditions of employment and compensation for retired psychiatric physicians.
“This will allow the Schneider Regional Medical Center, the Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital, and the Department of Health to increase the now inadequate number of psychiatrists by rehiring retirees or by recruiting from other jurisdictions, and will permit a competitive level of compensation,” according to the statement.
Mapp also reached out to the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, requesting immediate assistance from various federal agencies, including the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps or other federal deployment programs to provide acute and chronic mental health services at the territory’s two hospitals and in the V.I. Department of Health.
The territory’s ability to provide mental health care has been woefully inadequate for years – even decades.
Source special reports and news stories published over the past 17 years have exposed the plethora of problems facing the mentally ill in the territory and chronicled the many failed attempts to remedy what is a devastating and dangerous health crisis. (See Related Links below.)
Just a few examples.
On St. Croix, the inpatient psychiatric unit at Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital has been closed since 2012, and on St. Thomas Clear Blue Sky, a clubhouse for the mentally ill, shut down at least two years ago.
Even farther back, in 2003, several advocacy groups, under the umbrella V.I. Alliance, sued the V.I. government and the various government departments, agencies and officials responsible for delivering mental health care service, charging that it was inadequate. A consent decree resulted and the commission was formed to work out the details to improve service. Its members included government representatives and private sector advocates.
Clearly, that didn’t garner any lasting, large-scale notable results.
Commissions have been formed, task forces established, public outcries heard as people have continued to lose their loved ones to the unrelenting pressure and tragic results of untreated mental illness, and still the community encounters every day on its streets the disturbing effects of the failure to find a permanent, available full-scale treatment solution.
Small but significant efforts in the territory have made a difference in the lives of individuals. Adolescent programs, in-patient centers, efforts by clinics and the hospitals and private counselors, psychiatrists, and psychologists have and do make dents in the overall picture and must be acknowledged.
In a phone interview Saturday, Government House spokesperson Cherie Munchez said the combination of a new Health Department commissioner, Michelle Davis, and the addition of Medical Director Berina Wallace-Berube, who will also fill the role of mental health director for the department, made the timing right for zeroing in on the territory’s mental health crisis.
The major thing that stands in the way of bringing new psychiatrists on board are salary caps, she said.
Relaxing those restrictions with a state of emergency should provide the opportunity to hire new qualified psychiatric physicians at the Health Department as well as the hospitals.
The mental health emergency declaration takes effect immediately, Government House said, and unless modified sooner, will expire only after confirmation by the hospitals and health department that are enough providers of psychiatric care in the territory, or 30 days following the effective date unless renewed by the governor.