In spite of our stigmas, state-operated mental hospitals are supposed to be places where men and women who are a danger to themselves or to others can receive quality psychiatric care and treatment in managing their illnesses. Unfortunately, the mentally ill are a highly-marginalized people and in no place is that marginalization more evident than Florida’s psychiatric care facilities.
The Tampa Bay Times and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, two Florida-based Pulitzer Prize winning newspapers, recently conducted an investigation into the state of psychiatric care facilities in Florida and what they uncovered was horrifying. Years of neglect and $100 million in budget cuts cast gray skies on the Sunshine State’s mental hospitals, turning what should be an ambitious, Hippocratic environment into a dystopic free-for-all where violence erupts at the drop of a pencil, blood spatter paints the walls, and safety is a term whispered nostalgically among the terrified staff.
According to the expose, violent attacks in Florida’s six largest mental hospitals have doubled since 2009. Over 1,000 patients ordered to these hospitals for close supervision have managed to either hurt themselves or hurt others. Over the past five years, at least 15 people died at their own hands or at the hands of other patients. One particular suicidal man jumped off the eighth floor of his hospital’s parking garage. Another man was stomped to death by other patients because the staff at his hospital did not separate him from the patients who attacked him.
Furthermore, at least three people died because hospital staff either did not call or took too long to call 911. Some employees have testified that they felt pressured to not call 911 because of the expense. Others have said they had to report the incident to a supervisor to obtain permission to call 911.
Staffing is another major contributor to the nightmarish conditions in Florida’s psychiatric care facilities. Floridian mental hospitals are severely understaffed, to the point where violent patients can freely roam the halls unsupervised. The few employees on staff, typically, have to oversee 15 or more patients at the same time, on their own. In some hospitals, there is no radio communication and the nearest guard could be on another floor or even in another building.
Even patients who are under special supervision have been able to swallow batteries and razor blades — hoarding weapons to use against other patients. One notable incident took place in a Florida City hospital, where a patient used a wad of paper to break out of his locked room and stab another patient 10 times. Unaware of the incident, one of the employees actually helped the attacker wash the blood from his clothes while the victim bled on the floor where he was attacked.
The state of Florida does not have any statewide staffing requirements for their psychiatric care facilities and routinely, administrators in the Floridian mental health system are not held to account when things go wrong.
The degree of chaos and horror in Florida’s psychiatric care facilities is best personified in the state’s oldest and largest institution, the Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee. In 2010, state health inspectors found raw chicken dripping blood on top of a batch of hard-boiled eggs that were about to be served to patients. In 2013, inspectors found fire extinguishers in a cabinet that had been painted shut and a broken central alarm that no longer triggered an alert, putting 300 patients at risk. Just this year, an inspection revealed that some patients were without air conditioning in their rooms and that their cakes were infested with roaches.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the institutional failures of Florida’s psychiatric care facilities. The state of psychiatric care in Florida is a perfect example of what happens when money is put before medicine and public welfare. The conditions at Florida State Hospital and others around the state are deplorable and are in desperate need of fixing. The only means by which to fix these psychiatric care facilities is to afford more money to them, which is why the $100 million cut from the state’s mental hospitals makes each Floridian in the state legislature complicit in this tragic failure of humanity.
I urge you, in having read this, to click here and read the findings of the Tampa Bay Times and Sarasota Herald-Tribune in full. It’s disturbing, but needs to be known.