Are California’s Mental Health Hospitals Hazardous Work Environments?

Napa State Hospital where a health care worker was murdered, allegedly by a patient in 2010. (Lisle Boomer: Flickr)

Napa State Hospital where a health care worker was murdered, allegedly by a patient in 2010. (Lisle Boomer: Flickr)

NPR’s Ina Jaffe has filed a series of reports this year about violence in California’s psychiatric hospitals. The spark was the October 2010 murder of a health care worker at Napa State Hospital, allegedly by a psychiatric patient with a violent history.

Today, Jaffe reports that “thousands of violent incidents occur every year” at the state’s mental hospitals, but few are treated as crimes.

Violence in California’s psychiatric hospitals has been increasing, partly because the kind of patients treated at the hospitals has changed. Generally, people with mental illness aren’t especially dangerous. But these days, about 90 percent of the patients in California’s mental hospitals are committed by the criminal justice system. They’ve been found not guilty by reason of insanity, for example, or incompetent to stand trial.

Jaffe further reports that the increase in violence came after a Justice Department imposed treatment plan in 2006-2007 following “horrifying” cases of abuse and neglect. Treatment improved, but the violence got worse. The Justice Department imposed similar plans on other hospitals around the country, but oddly only in California do the hospitals affected but Justice Department action treat patients who have committed serious crimes.

The state Legislature has been holding hearings on this issue. Psychiatrist Mona Mosk told lawmakers she was attacked by a patient who was sent to her hospital from a penitentiary “because that person was so dangerous, they couldn’t be managed effectively in prison.”

Arrests Rare After Assaults

Mosk has been working at Patton State Hospital near San Bernardino, Calif., for more than 10 years. She explained that expectations for personal safety and accountability are completely different in the hospital than they are on the street.

“If anyone came up to you on the street and clocked you in the face, I’m pretty sure they would be arrested,” Mosk told lawmakers. But she said that at the hospitals, “arrest is something that happens very rarely, although assaults occur almost on a daily basis.

Read the rest of Jaffe’s report here.

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