Over the Hill

SLO County only has 16 beds for thousands of mentally ill residents. That's not OK

A patient closes their door in the 16-bed adult wing of Psychiatric Health Facility in San Luis Obispo. The grand jury called the facility "antiquated and unsafe."
A patient closes their door in the 16-bed adult wing of Psychiatric Health Facility in San Luis Obispo. The grand jury called the facility "antiquated and unsafe." jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Roughly 5,000 residents of San Luis Obispo County have severe mental illnesses. But the county’s psychiatric health facility has only 16 beds. Now, that’s crazy.

I read those numbers in the May 16 issue of The Tribune. They were in a front-page story under the headline “Grand jury: Mental health services fall short.” So the question now is: Will the county supervisors do what’s right to relieve the otherwise inevitable suffering?

The figure of 5,000 mentally ill residents is obviously an estimate, and some of them probably have medical insurance. Others may get financial help or care from relatives. But it seems safe to guess that far more than 16 of them are unable to pay for their needed psychiatric hospitalization.

And “suffering” is not too strong a word to use when we remember 36-year-old Andrew Holland of Atascadero.

He‘d had schizophrenia since his early 20s. Last year he was in county jail for battery, resisting an officer and probation violations. On Jan. 20, 2017, he was strapped into a restraint chair.

After 46 continuous hours in that chair, he was returned to a cell where he died an hour later from a blood clot in a lung. His parents received $5 million from the county.

If the county had an adequate psychiatric health facility, Andrew Holland might have been in it, getting treated for his mental illness instead of being sent to jail, where he just sank deeper into his illness. With proper treatment, he might still be alive today.

Mental illness comes in many forms, some treatable and some maybe not. And mental illness may be more common than we think.

My late wife, Mamie, battled bouts of depression for years. They stopped, but during her final 10 years she sank slowly into the delusions and frights of Alzheimer’s disease.

Mamie still had three years to live when, in August 2014, my thinking became disorganized. I had developed slow internal bleeding on my brain after bumping my head. It required immediate surgery, followed by several weeks of therapy. During that period, she and I both lived in the same nursing home.

I became aware of mental illness in my boyhood. Back in about 1940, I was 10 years old and we lived in rural New York State.

At dinner one Sunday, we noticed a woman was walking and trotting around and around our house. She lived in the next house down the road.

My mother went out and brought her in. The neighbor was very upset. She believed the family doctor was trying to steal her baby. She also believed there were dead bodies in the woods across the road. She was soon committed to a state hospital.

But at least she was admitted to that mental hospital and got treatment. Our county supervisors should listen to the grand jury and provide a proper mental hospital.

Phil Dirkx’s column is special to the Tribune. He has lived in Paso Robles for more than five decades and his column appears every other week. Reach Dirkx at 805-238-2372 or phild2008@sbcglobal.net.

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