A crisis in mental health care is forcing Virginia to stop accepting new patients at five of its eight state institutions because staffing shortages and safety issues are affecting their ability to meet the growing need for care.
The head of the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services (DBHDS) said in a statement that there are more than 1,500 patient-support staff vacancies across the state.
The result is a dangerous environment where staff and patients are at increasing risk for physical harm, and where effective treatment to help patients recover is much harder to deliver, DBHDS said in a letter to its partners and providers Friday.
According to the department, there have been 63 serious injuries to patients and staff since July 1.
The hospitals closed to new patients effective immediately are Catawba Hospital, Central State Hospital, Eastern State Hospital, Piedmont Geriatric Hospital and Western State Hospital.
Staffing levels at Northern Virginia Mental Health Institute in Fairfax County, Southern Virginia Mental Health Institute and Southwestern Virginia Mental Health Institute are being monitored but "are acceptable for now," the department said.
Herndon Police Chief Maggie Deboard is the president of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police.
She said the closures to new patients could result in more interactions between police and people in crisis. And if there is no bed space, those in crisis could end up back on the street without getting the care they need.
"Law enforcement can't close their doors. And when nobody answers the call to help the neighbor that's in crisis or a family member, the only people left they have to call are us," Deboard said. "And we don't know what to do. We don't have the options. We don't have the resources."
The association said Virginia needs to provide more community-based mental health care because the current system isn’t working.
“There is literally no place for people to go who are in critical need of mental health services,” the association said in a statement.
The Virginia General Assembly will have a special session on Aug. 2. Deboard said lawmakers need to make solving this crisis a top priority.
More than 100 people have resigned from Virginia state mental health hospitals in the last couple of weeks, many citing unsafe work conditions and long hours.
"The problem is with all the vacancies they have in the state hospitals now, there is no quick fix to this problem," Deboard said. "It has slowly crumbled to the point of almost collapse. And it can't be fixed quickly, but we have to come up with solutions really quickly."