Saturday, November 4, 2017

Minnesota's Abandonment Of Severely Mentally Ill - Nearly Complete

For years I have been documenting the systematic dismantling of the public mental health system in the state of Minnesota.  A chronic unanswered question is how the midwest's most liberal state has come up with such a horrible system.  The most obvious answer is that the system is being run by people who do not have a clue about the treatment of mental illnesses.  A Governor's Task Force, convened a year ago has not put a dent into the further systematic deterioration.  This 30 year race to the bottom in terms of deterioration is why I was not surprised at all by the latest piece of bad news.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune published a story three days ago that St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Brainerd Minnesota stopped accepting patients who were being treated on an involuntary basis under civil commitment.  They cite an increased length of stay and safety issues. Both of these are valid concerns with people committed for treatment of a mental illness.  The system of hospital reimbursement put in place in the 1980s encourages rationing and absurdly short length of stays in inpatient psychiatric units.  People who have undergone civil commitment generally have more difficult to stabilize mental illnesses compounded by a lack of recognition that they have a problem.  Some of them are also violent and aggressive and those behaviors are directly attributable to the mental illness.  The article refers to an incident where one of these patients threw a wooden chair at a nurse and the next day six voluntary patients requested discharge.  This is a relatively mild incident compared to what is possible in acute inpatient settings trying to care for people with the most severe forms of mental illness.  The most important aspect of treating violent and aggressive patients is having an environment of highly trained people to work with them.

The reality of the situation is reflected by the balance of both acute care and public psychiatric hospital beds.  There are 145 hospitals in the state of Minnesota and 125 have 24 hour emergency departments. Thirty two of these hospitals have psychiatric units.  These community hospitals have a total of  1,124 inpatient mental health beds statewide. Nine hundred sixty of these beds are for adults, and 164 for children and adolescents.  On the public side, there are 194 public beds for patients with severe mental illnesses who are committed.  Only committed patients can be admitted to these beds.  According to the Treatment Advocacy Center states need about 50 beds for 100,000 people.  Minnesota has 3.5 per 100,000 public beds and 22.8 per 100,000 beds in community hospitals.  Notice that in a comparison to psychiatric beds in OECD nations, the national average in the US is 22 beds per 100,000.  The United States ranks 29 out of 34 countries ranked in terms of fewest psychiatric beds.  Beds in public hospitals are not equivalent to beds in community hospitals and the newspaper report highlights the differences.  Like most states Minnesota continues to lose beds largely because of mismanagement at the level of state government and what has been an implicit initiative to shut down the state hospitals system.

The bed situation is compounded by a number of factors besides the lack of beds.  There is inadequate housing for people disabled by severe mental illness and inadequate resources to help them live independently.  The average person is expected to come in and see a psychiatrist for a discussion of medication and whether or not their acute symptoms are in remission.  Treatment for combined severe mental illness and substance use disorders is practically non-existent.  The inpatient crisis got worse when legislators passed a very poorly thought out law allowing incarcerated mentally ill patients to be transferred to remaining state hospital beds as a priority over committed patients waiting for transfer in community hospitals. This was an initiative to correct the statistic that Minnesota incarcerates 1.2 people with severe mental illness for every 1 person that it hospitalizes. 

All of the usual commentators are appear in the article - the Commissioner of Human Services and an advocate.  The reader is told that everyone is troubled by this development and wringing their hands.      

Well I'm not.  The entire sequence of events has been observable and is totally predictable.

This is a system that has been severely rationed nearly to the point of near extinction by Minnesota lawmakers and bureaucrats.  It has been interfered with by advocates and in some cases by very bad hiring decisions of people who were supposed to correct the problem.  The only thing we have to show for 30 years of hand-wringing is a a non-existent system of care that does not start to pull resources together until after a person has gone through a civil commitment hearing.  Psychiatrists have been marginalized in the process in favor of administrators who come up with one bad idea after the next.  Managed care systems seem to only recognize dangerousness as an admission criteria to inpatient psychiatric units.  The impact of that bias on commitment frequency, damage to the physician-patient alliance, and damage to the inpatient milieu is probably significant but nobody is interested in studying it.

From the article, the problem is clearly solvable.  There are an estimated 4,000 patients a year who need these services and only 194 beds available to them.  They cannot be humanely treated in community hospital acute care units.  They can also not be humanely treated in group homes designed to be surrogate state hospital beds.  They receive the least humane treatment in jail. The solution is not to blame community hospitals who cannot treat the problem.  One of the issues not mentioned in the article is that the state hospitals have been so decimated - they also cannot treat the problem.  There are probably three community hospitals in Minnesota who have adequate staffing and professional resources to address this problem.  It is conceivable that many more of the remaining 28 community hospitals with psychiatric units will adopt similar policies if they can.  The administrative measure of saying that they can't do this is really not a solution because they really can't provide the necessary care.  The state should know this from their failed initiative to provide smaller local units for committed patients.  That initiative failed for the same reason that St. Joseph's Medical Center no longer accepts committed patients.  They cannot provide adequate care for severe mental illnesses especially when aggression and violence is involved. 

I have posted the solutions in the past and they are obvious. Today I just have three:

1.  Build facilities necessary for the humane treatment of people with severe mental illnesses. Staff these facilities adequately and develop continuity of care with local facilities  when patients are ready to be discharged.  Build these facilities as state-of-the-art facilities in metropolitan areas and not rural areas.  The time is past when people were sent away to the country with mental illness.  Modern mental hospitals need easy access to advanced diagnostic and treatment equipment as well as expertise that is only concentrated in large cities.

2.  Immediately stop arbitrary transfers from county jails to state hospitals, unless the incarcerated patients have been assessed by psychiatrists who agree that a state hospital setting is the best place for them to be. 

3.  Get out of the way of the people who were trained to work there and run them - psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses, and social workers.     

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA


1:  Chris Serres. Brainerd hospital stops admitting patients with severe mental illnesses, citing state bottlenecks: Brainerd decision alarms officials, mental health advocates.  StarTribune November 1, 2017.

Supplementary 1: The image used for this post is of Dexter Asylum attributed to Lawrence E. Tilley [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. The original image was Photoshopped with a graphic pen filter.


  1. I lived in California back when then-governor Ronald Reagan began the entire process of closing state hospitals that has now come to the point you describe. When he was president, he also began to kick people with schizophrenia off of the SSI disability roles, ignoring psychiatric evaluations like the ones I did back then - until the courts stepped in and put a stop to it.

  2. Um, the rot starts at the top, the people in Minnesota more recently had elected a wrestler for Governor, and now have a comic as one of their US Senators in Washington. So, when common sense and decency have degraded to a point where a well known name or spot in entertainment qualifies for being a public representative, well, what does that say?

    Why am I one of the few to point out that societies have repetitively punished the mentally ill early on when chaos and degenerative change is occurring in leadership of cultures? Who knows, maybe the degenerates trying to rule are fearful the "crazies" might catch on and expose the real insanity going on among the people?

    It is interesting in my travels when the chronically Axis 1 patients pick up on the Axis 2 disrupters on units really not needing to be on an inpatient unit. And yet, here in Maryland at least, that is what politicians want State Units to now house, the Axis 2 who are being inappropriately sent out of correctional facilities and forced onto psych units, to dump the judicial headaches onto medical providers.

    I bet politicians see it as a 2 for 1 deal, hide the criminals and destroy psychiatry at the same time, what does the Grinch say after the dog wipes off the Red ball on his nose:

    Joel Hassman, MD
    Board Certified Psychiatrist