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'There was no choice.' Understaffing forces state to close 70+ psychiatric beds

Walter Reuther Psychiatric Hospital
Posted at 3:07 PM, Oct 20, 2022
and last updated 2022-10-21 10:24:20-04

(WXYZ) — A perfect storm fueled by understaffing and aging hospital buildings has forced the state of Michigan to temporarily close more than 70 long-term psychiatric beds at three of its behavioral facilities.

The bed closures, which began earlier this year, follow a series of high-profile violent incidents involving men and women who struggled to find treatment for their mental illnesses.

“I did not want to make this decision,” Dr. George Mellos, the senior deputy state hospital administrator. “There was no choice. It was about keeping staff and patients safe.”

Kalamazoo Psychiatric Hospital has taken 50 beds offline, while Walter Reuther Hospital in Westland has temporarily closed 20. Both hospitals treat adults and have been plagued by severe shortages of nurses and direct care workers.

“These would be the most severe cases of mental illness,” said Kevin Fischer, Executive Director of the Michigan chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“This is the schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder. The really serious mental illnesses that require that level of treatment,” he said.

Hawthorn Center in Northville, the state’s only psychiatric hospital for children, recently saw its budget increase from 55 beds to 79—the highest level in decades—as Governor Whitmer responded to a high demand for beds.

But as of Tuesday, just 42 patients were being treated there while the hospital remains under renovations to expand. Even if the 79 beds were open, hospital officials say, Hawthorn wouldn’t have enough employees to staff them.

The logjam effects families like Laura Marshall, who’s been fighting for months to find a bed at Hawthorn for her 14-year-old son.

Adopted from Ethiopia just after his first birthday, he faces a litany of conditions including reactive attachment disorder to pediatric bipolar. Due to the challenges he faces, his mother asked that we not name him.

“He has this zero to rage in about 3 seconds flat,” Marshall said. “You might know what’s trigger him, you might not.”

Through no fault of his own, her son can display near-constant rage where almost anything can become a weapon.

In the last year, he has has torn a three foot by five foot hole in his bedroom wall, caused other structural damage throughout the house, attacked family members and pushed his bedroom dresser and mattress down a flight of stairs.

Without a longer-term psychiatric facility to treat him, Marshall's son has sat in a local juvenile detention facility because it’s the only place in the state that can safely hold him.

At Hawthorn, she says, “there aren’t enough beds and there’s consistently this months-long waiting list.”

Molly Dixon and her husband adopted their son when he was 7. He is 12 today and suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome and disruptive mood disorder.

“I’ve seen him choke all three of the kids at different points until they turn purple. He’s tried to throw his six-year-old younger sister into traffic,” Dixon said, adding that she’s had to call police more than 30 times in just the last two years.

When the mental health system wouldn’t stop in, she said, the criminal justice system did. Today, her son also sits in juvenile detention in Grand Rapids.

“He doesn’t understand why he’s there. He doesn’t understand the system. He doesn’t understand the charges against him,” his mother said. “They’re not treating him, they’re just holding him.”

Dr. Mellos, who runs the state’s five inpatient psychiatric hospitals, called the staffing shortage “pervasive,” and stressed that the lack of nursing and direct care staff is effecting hospital systems in every state.

“The bottom line is we have to pay people enough to make a living in our current economic circumstances,” Mellos said.

Fischer, the executive director of NAMI Michigan, says that even before the pandemic, Michigan was in the midst of a severe nursing and direct-care worker shortage and COVID pushed more out.

With no influx of new healthcare workers to pull from, hospitals are using signing bonuses and tuition reimbursement to fight for the staff that remain.

“It’s robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Fischer said. “The problem is we’re further fracturing the system, we’re taking away an important element called continuity of care.”

But state officials stress that they are working hard to recruit more staff, recently approving 20% pay increases for licensed professionals like nurses, though they won’t take effect for another year.

There are no pay increases in the works for direct-care workers, at least not yet.

Hawthorn’s expansion is set to be complete by early 2023, but just because more beds will be ready doesn’t mean they’ll have the nurses to staff them.

Until a significant number of hires are made, too many children like Laura Marshall’s son will continue to be turned away.

“My son deserves a future,” she said, “and I feel like it’s actively being stolen from him.”

Contact 7 Investigator Ross Jones at ross.jones@wxyz.com or at (248) 827-9466.