North Carolina mental health facilities reflect a failing system


Editorials and other opinion content provide viewpoints on issues important to our community and are independent of the work of our newsroom reporters.


“Zero control” at the psychiatric center

In 2009, state lawmakers at a hearing on mental health funding learned that about a quarter of all children placed in group homes or psychiatric care facilities in the United States were in Carolina. North. State inspections show the Garner facility was also cited this year for failing to stop a 60-year-old patient with dementia from fleeing; for placing three boys between the ages of 13 and 16 under duress without notifying the staff doctors; and for having no primary treatment plan for eight boys. What happens in these treatment centers? This is the special report from The N&O.

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When I was 15, I tried to kill myself, and I just needed a safe space afterwards.

Sitting in the hospital room, I asked my mother if we could pick up my favorite meal on the way home. My mother looked at me with sad eyes – eyes that told me she knew something I didn’t.

“You’re not coming home today, honey,” she admitted.

I had no idea what she meant. Where was I going?

Stories recently published by the News & Observer and the USA Today North Carolina Network offer a disturbing look at our state’s children’s mental institutions. They talk about prison-like institutions that abuse patients and fail to give them the one thing they need most: treatment.

I, too, was a patient in a private, for-profit psychiatric facility, albeit in an acute inpatient program, and my experience was sadly similar. Under North Carolina law, if a person is deemed a threat to themselves or others, a medical professional can ask a judge to order mental health treatment against their will. This process is called involuntary commitment, and it meant being separated from my parents and transported to a mental institution in the back of a police car.

I tried to forget what happened there, but some memories stuck like super glue, colored in shades of sadness and fear. I remember holding my breath as emotionally distressed patients were given pills, sedated, and restrained. Standing side by side in the cafeteria while the employees counted the silverware and prayed that not a fork or a knife was missing, because we would be strip searched, one by one, if there were any. Sobbing to my parents during visiting hours, because I was young and naive and still had a hard time understanding how the world could be so cruel.

Time passed slowly. We spent 16 hours a day together in a big room. There were no chairs, so we sat on the floor watching TV. Pencils, blankets and even food were not just given away; they were privileges to be earned and derived in equal measure. Staff members, many of whom were verbally abusive, scolded us if we asked to use the toilet or get a drink of water. At night, we slept without pillows and took cold showers.

Nothing seemed to have been designed to help us. The comprehensive treatment programs described to my parents and me on my arrival existed only in the brochures — I don’t remember speaking with a single therapist, let alone a doctor, for more than two or three minutes.

My mother told me recently that following my suicide attempt, the psychiatrist I had been seeing for over a year told her that she had to toughen up on me.

“She must learn that her actions have consequences,” he said.

The last thing I needed was to learn some kind of lesson, but I learned it anyway. I learned it as soon as I saw my mother’s face in that hospital room and I knew I wasn’t going home. I learned it again as I sat in fear in the back of that police cruiser, as I hugged each night in the mental institution and wondered if I would be home. in time for Christmas. The message could not have been clearer: I had done something unspeakable. It was my punishment. It was my prison.

The most traumatic and defining experience of my life wasn’t my suicide attempt – it was how I was treated afterwards. Seven years later, I’m still haunted by what happened there, and it took me a long time to find the courage to seek professional help again. My experience may not be shared by all patients, but as I have seen, and as the News & Observer and USA Today have detailed, it happens frequently enough to indicate that the system is fundamentally failing. – it fails people like me every day.

North Carolina needs better oversight of its psychiatric facilities. Many of these centers have been cited by the state for repeated rule violations, but they still remain open. Why? Don’t we have a better solution for children in crisis than locking them up? With depression and suicidal behavior in young people are rising precipitously, that cannot be the way we save them.

Paige Masten is a member of the Editorial Board.

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Paige Masten is an opinion writer for the Charlotte Observer and McClatchy’s opinion team in North Carolina, covering a wide range of issues that impact the city and state. She grew up in Raleigh and graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2021.

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