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Increase in mental health crisis ties up officers, deputies at Augusta Health

Published: Dec. 30, 2021 at 1:37 PM EST
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SHENANDOAH VALLEY, Va. (WVIR) - Nationwide staffing issues are also impacting law enforcement and mental health hospitals.

There has been an increase in mental health emergencies during the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s creating issues for officers and deputies in the Shenandoah Valley.

When someone goes into Augusta Health involuntarily for a mental health emergency, law enforcement is required by law to be with them 24-7. Deputies and officers in the Shenandoah Valley are working together to make sure that happens, but it’s not sustainable.

“The issue really is about the state’s failure, in my opinion, to build capacity to care for the numbers of individuals we see each year that come into the system under temporary detention,” Blue Ridge Crisis Intervention Training Coordinator Kelly Walker said.

Walker says mental health crisis have been magnified across all their agencies.

“There can be 10 beds, but if you only have staffing for two of them you cannot admit patients to the other eight. You can’t,” Walker said.

The capacity issue is a problem that’s been building from changes made in recent years, like when Western State Hospital downsized with a new facility, and some state hospitals closed. Additionally, legislative changes aimed to keep people from slipping through the cracks, also increased the need for resources that weren’t funded.

People can be in the hospital for several days - not including weekends and holidays - waiting for a bed at a mental health facility somewhere in the commonwealth.

“You can’t tell me that lying in a bed with a police officer standing over top of you for up to 72 hours while you’re in temporary detention for your mental health treatment is therapeutic,” Walker said.

This contradicts what Walker says is fundamental to the Blue Ridge CIT that hundreds of first responders have received in the Shenandoah Valley over the past 10 years: “Everything we should do should be in the direction of providing that individual that’s in crisis with therapeutic experience to the best of our ability,” Walker stated.

“We’re going to still be there. The police officers are still going to be there, and we’re going be doing our job and what we have been sworn to do,” Waynesboro Police Captain Becky Meeks said.

She says they’re just asking for some resources to help with the situation.

“It’s not necessarily for us,” Meeks added. “The primary source of why we need this is for the patient, because they deserve to be getting the mental health care which they’re there for.”

“Working with as many partners as we can to make the situation as tolerable as it can be here, but it still comes back to a capacity issue way above our paygrade,” Walker said.

Something police say is needed in the area is a detox center, and that requires funding.

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