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How to handle mentally ill discussed

May 22, 1999|By DAVE McMILLION, Charles Town

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Capt. Curtis Keller was making one of the Sheriff's Department's many trips to the state mental hospital in Weston, W.Va., when the patient he was transporting became upset and started tearing up the inside of the van.

The woman knocked out a window, but because no medical personnel were on board, no sedative could be administered for the woman, Keller said.

"It's a medical problem. We're here for law enforcement. We shouldn't have to do this any more," Keller said.

Keller's concerns about the state's mental health care system were one of many voiced during a forum here last week. It was the first of four to be held across the state to gather input on how to reform the system.

Others complained about the commitment process for patients, saying it can frighten them, and they called for more local mental health facilities that would save local police from making the 300-mile trip to the William R. Sharpe Jr. Hospital in Weston to get help for patients.

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When a mentally ill patient needs medical care, a hearing is sometimes required to determine if the patient should be committed to a hospital. But often times, preparations for the hearing are rushed, which is not conducive to a good legal process, said Berkeley County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Hassan Rasheed, whose office is in charge of setting up the hearings.

Rasheed said the prosecuting attorney's office should not be involved in the process anyway. A psychiatrist should be the one to organize the hearings and help make the determination whether a patient should be committed, Rasheed said.

"This system does not work," Rasheed told the state Commission on Mental Hygiene Reform at the Berkeley County Courthouse last Tuesday. "The way the resources are allocated in this system, it's just way off base," Rasheed said.

Public defender Homer Speaker said the system is "out of control."

Henry Morrow Jr., chief mental hygiene commissioner in Berkeley County, said he doesn't think the comments will come as a surprise to the mental hygiene reform commission, whose recommendations on how to change the system will ultimately have to go to the Legislature.

Morrow oversees several mental hygiene commissioners in the Tri-State who determine whether patients should be committed.

Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Chris Quasebarth questioned whether a hearing needs to be held before a person is committed. If a person is sent to a mental facility immediately, the patient can get immediate treatment while preparations are made for a hearing, Quasebarth said.

In the meantime, it is possible the patient may stabilize in the hospital, eliminating the need for a hearing, Quasebarth said.

Keller said people who are taken to Weston often show up in town again within a short period of time, and it seems the department is constantly going up and down the road to the hospital. If the patients need treatment, then they should stay at Sharpe, Keller said.

About 67 mental hygiene hearings have been held in Berkeley County this year.

Commissioner Robert L. Burkhart characterized some of the patients as ones who "get their welfare check, get drunk, and lay down in the street."

Burkhart suggested the development of a mental health facility at City Hospital, which would be more convenient for health care workers.

The mental hygiene reform commission will gather input on the system until June 30.

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