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Making mental health centers safe

Posted by Marjorie Pritchard  September 27, 2011 01:28 PM

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By Vic DiGravio and Susan Tousignant

Following the death in January of staff worker Stephanie Moulton at a Revere residence for individuals with mental illness, the state Department of Mental Health appointed a task force to examine staff and consumer safety at DMH-funded programs. The Task Force’s report, released in July, contained thoughtful recommendations for improving safety at these programs, which are located in communities across the state.

Today at the State House, legislators are taking up just one small part of the solution as outlined in the report of the Task Force. The bill would require so-called “panic buttons” that allow employees “to call for help in the event of an emergency.”

How did we get here? Over the last few decades, Massachusetts has developed a network of community-based mental health providers that have successfully enabled tens of thousands of men, women and adolescents to enjoy productive lives. These individuals live, work, attend school and job training programs, and contribute to society. Their quality of life is far better than it would be living in an institution. It is a cost-effective system that promotes recovery for individuals living with mental illness.

The Task Force’s report confirmed this fact and was also very clear that the majority of DMH consumers receiving community services live safely and successfully in the community. Studies, moreover, confirm that individuals in DMH programs are more likely to be victims than perpetrators of violence, which is why the report contained strong warnings against further increasing stigma and discrimination around mental illness.

Nonetheless, the report was clear in identifying specific actions that the Commonwealth should take to improve safety in community-settings. That is why as representatives of mental health care provider organizations and the staff who work at these centers, we urge that the state embrace comprehensive reforms based on the DMH Staff and Client and Safety Task Force’s review.

One very important Task Force recommendation is that the Commonwealth devote additional resources to ensure sufficient staffing at community-based mental health programs. DMH facilities and centers have suffered from years of underfunding. The recent recession has caused budget cuts that directly impact the quality of services, which then impacts the safety of clients and staff.

The governor and the Legislature need to provide adequate funding for services for individuals determined to be eligible for state programs. The budget signed by the governor in July was an important first step in achieving this goal, but more funding is necessary.

On Nov. 1, DMH will issue a work plan based on its Task Force report, with a schedule for implementing enhanced safety measures. The Legislature should immediately take in account all of DMH's plan and policy recommendations.

Both our organizations and our members understand the critical importance of staff and consumer safety at DMH-funded programs. Safety is an essential condition for the success of these services in helping individuals achieve recovery. Direct care workers, providers, consumers, DMH and the Legislature need to work together to for the benefit of both consumers and staff in passage of comprehensive legislation based on the recommendations of the DMH Task Force on Staff and Client Safety.

Vic DiGravio is president of the Association for Behavioral Healthcare. Susan Tousignant is president of SEIU Local 509.

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