California State Mental Hospital Sees Spike In Suicides Amid Staffing Shortage

Thursday, March 22nd 2007, 11:39 am

By: News On 6

ATASCADERO, Calif. (AP) _ Two patients have killed themselves at the state's mental hospital in the past two months after more than a year without a suicide, and officials say a severe staff shortage is eroding care.

Mel Hunter, executive director of Atascadero State Hospital, said he could not directly tie the suicides to staffing shortages, but he said patient care is suffering.

``In an institution running shortages from 52 percent to 80 percent on our clinical staff, we are bound to start seeing some bad outcomes,'' Hunter said. To keep wards fully staffed, the hospital has had to rely on employees working hours of overtime, he said in Thursday's Los Angeles Times.

Until February, the Central Coast psychiatric facility had not had a suicide since August 2005. Over the past six years, it averaged fewer than one suicide attempt per month, and suicides were rare.

On Wednesday, after a meeting with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Department of Mental Health director Stephen W. Mayberg announced temporary raises in an effort to stem the loss of key staff to higher-paying jobs in the prison system. Psychiatrists' pay will rise to within 5 percent of prison salaries, while salaries for other clinicians will increase to within 18 percent of their peers in prisons.

``This will slow down the hemorrhage, but the patient is still bleeding to death,'' said Dr. John Cannell, whose patient load surpasses 100. ``The real question to me is whether doctors who have left for corrections will be willing to take a 5 percent pay cut for the privilege of working at Atascadero State Hospital in its current deteriorating state. I don't think so.''

Hunter said contract psychiatrists were being brought in to help _ at about triple the rate staff psychiatrists are paid.

The two men who died, Matthew Miller and Roland James, had been sent to Atascadero from the California prison system, where lawsuits have placed many of its operations under federal oversight, including inmate mental health care.

``It's hard to accept. Your kids are supposed to outlive you,'' said James' mother, Christine James. ``It's a mental hospital. I would have thought they would have watched him since they know mental patients are capable of such things.''

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