/How Mississippi’s mental health system failed this family in crisis

How Mississippi’s mental health system failed this family in crisis

Their 22-year old nonverbal autistic son Colby, had an angry outburst and had to flee to safety. Lacey, Teddy and their babysitter rushed to get home and quickly left their jobs. Two sheriff’s deputys who had been trained in crisis intervention were dispatched to their home. Although Lacey stated that the deputies were helpful and compassionate, Colby was unable to calm down. Officers handcuffed Colby and took him to Magee General Hospital. He was then given high doses of antipsychotic medication that made him unconscious. Lacey stated that Colby’s Magee physician assistant immediately began calling hospitals to locate a psychiatric unit. Colby reached out to Forrest General Hospital and the University of Mississippi Medical Center. He also reached out St. Dominic’s Regional Center, Boswell Regional Center, and St. Dominic’s Regional Center. They all received the same message: there are no beds available. Lacey stated that “He tried so hard for Colby to find a place, but we were stopped every step of the road.” Jane Walton, Communications Director of Disability Rights Mississippi, a non-profit organization that advocates for Mississippians living with disabilities, stated that the Mississippi Department of Mental Health needs to increase the number of state hospital beds so that people in crisis like Colby are not left without care. She said that the county in which one lives should not dictate whether a person can access community-based care. “They (the Hutchinsons), got the worst of all the worst at every turning. Walton stated that this illustrates how there are obstacles at every turn for people with disabilities and their family members to receive the care they need in Mississippi. The pandemic ravaged hospitals and also affected another aspect of healthcare, mental health services at state-run facilities. DMH had over 1,000 fewer employees in January than it had a year ago. Lacey and Teddy were out of options and couldn’t safely take Colby home so they accepted a doctor’s recommendation to intubate Colby. They also sent him by air ambulance to Merit Health River Region Hospital Vicksburg. Lacey felt that her country and state had failed her family. Lacey stated that she was overwhelmed by the feeling of hopelessness and statelessness. “Knowing I couldn’t go with him, that feeling of hopelessness overwhelmed me, and I don’t want anyone else to go through that.” Had the system been working properly, Colby would have been admitted into a nearby psychiatric unit or state hospital that provides services for people with disabilities. But that didn’t happen. Colby was intubated for two days in the emergency department. Colby was taken off ventilators and given medication to calm his anger. He was then confined to his bed until those efforts failed. Although the staff tried to give Colby the best possible care, Lacey stated that Colby was too medicated and was unconscious. Both Lacey, Teddy and Teddy worked during that time. They took vacation days to be with Colby. To save money on hotel stays, one night they slept in their car. They were exhausted and devastated and reached out to Wendy Bailey, the executive director of Mississippi Department of Mental Health, and their representatives in state legislature. Lacey stated that Bailey secured Colby a room at East Mississippi State Hospital, Meridian, so that his medication could be adjusted properly. Colby was discharged from Boswell Regional Center after a week of being there, and his behavior had stabilized. Lacey stated that while we are grateful Colby is receiving the help he requires, it shouldn’t take such extreme measures for him to receive these services. “The state needs to have plans in order to better manage situations like this,” Lacey said. The mental health crisis Colby faced wasn’t something that happened suddenly. This crisis had been growing for several months. Colby was a former resident at Boswell Regional Center. This facility is one of five in the state that treat people with intellectual or developmental disabilities. In October 2020, Colby was forced to leave because of a bowel obstruction. He spent 28 days at Forrest General Hospital Hattiesburg. Colby lost 126 pounds during that stay, which involved three separate intestinal surgeries. His mother stated that he also suffered from seizures frequently, sometimes lasting up to 45 minutes. This was due to his inability to swallow his seizure medication by mouth. Colby was weak enough to be admitted to Boswell when the Hutchinsons brought him home. They were able to provide Colby with adequate at-home care thanks to the Mississippi Medicaid Home & Community Based waiver program. The Hutchinsons had been able to provide at-home care until Colby started showing serious behavioral problems in October last year. In December, the Hutchinsons reached out to Boswell to try to get Colby readmitted. However, this was not possible due to COVID-related staffing problems. Colby’s health had significantly deteriorated by January. Colby was sleeping only for four hours per night and his parents were constantly bruised by his violent outbursts. Colby was not getting the behavioral support he needed, and he had to be given medication adjustments. The downward spiral continued, and became more severe until February 7. After trying for so many years to get Colby the care that he needed, Lacey became frustrated at the state’s inadequacies in mental health care and felt like COVID-19 was used to deny him care. I think someone could have said “Okay, this family needs help.” Lacey stated that we must do something for him. Bailey stated that DMH needed to make adjustments in order to maintain quality care. Bailey explained to Mississippi Today that some of DMH’s programs had to decrease their bed capacity in order for them to continue operating safely. Bed capacity has been reduced by virus outbreaks in facilities that have to be quarantined and staff who are called out sick. Bailey stated that DMH’s ultimate goal was to restore staffing levels and program capacity to pre-pandemic levels. Then, DMH will focus on expanding community-based care. U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves ruled last year in favor of DMH. This was after the U.S. Department of Justice had sued Mississippi over allegations that it did not prioritize treating mental health patients in the community, instead of in hospitals. DMH will likely receive its share of American Rescue Plan Act funds to fund the budgetary increases it needs to implement community-based care initiatives. Senate Bill 2865 would provide more than $104 million for DMH to address pandemic-related issues. The Senate approved it, but the House must approve it to go to the Governor. Tate Reeves’ desk. The proposal is focused on improving the state’s crisis system to help people like Colby. The proposal includes the addition of 60 beds to crisis stabilization units. These units are designed to treat individuals in psychiatric crises without the need for inpatient admission to a hospital. Another initiative is to create crisis diversion homes, which will allow Colby to be treated in a way that allows them to be kept out of institutional settings while still receiving 24/7 care. Bailey stated that many people who are in a mental crisis and end up in institutional care have exhausted all other options. Bailey stated that “that’s not always going to work.” “There’s always going to be situations that require a higher level of care, but if we can serve somebody in the community and prevent that (institutionalization), that’s what we want to do.” Joy Hogge, Executive Director of Families as Allies, said that the problem with adding services is that it attempts to solve a problem without improving systems already in place. Hogge stated that the ARPA proposal seems to be very focused on adding more services. “I know that we need services. But infrastructure must be built so that these services can be coordinated across the entire system.