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Legislature must fix Alaska's mental health grievance rules

Dorrance Collins,Faith Myers

Deservedly or not, psychiatric patients dominate the headlines in gun violence cases. Other tragedies are: those with a severe mental illness become victims of crime and suicide more than the average person.

Fundamental changes must be made in how psychiatric patients are provided services and how patients and guardians file a complaint and receive a resolution. Having written that reminds us of a character in a movie berating an entire town at the fair for 10 minutes in language and terms that would melt the paint off a battleship. He was trying to encourage the citizens to improve their town. At the end of it all, there was dead silence for several minutes, then loud applause. The townspeople informed him he just won the cussing contest. With a degree of self-loathing and reluctant pride -- he accepted the plaque and the blue ribbon.

Five psychiatric patients in a mental institution all believed they were Jesus. The psychiatrist put them all in the same room. The idea was to get at least one patient to believe there was room for doubt. All left the room believing they were Jesus. A woman walked miles each day to feed a seagull fully believing that it was her son. A woman wore socks outdoors in the snow believing they were new shoes -- It is the conviction of belief that is a concern.

Psychiatric patients with a severe mental illness in a mental institution or a downtown bus station or a nest of do-gooders will be victimized far more often than the average person, anything from rape or assault to loss of possessions. Recognition of mental disabilities should require the state to give all psychiatric patients a special grievance procedure.

Today the state and hospitals providing psychiatric care expect a mentally ill individual in crisis to use a standard complaint procedure and then wait two or three weeks to get a preliminary response (Joint Commission for the Accreditation of Hospital Organization grievance rules). A lot can happen to a mentally ill individual in two or three weeks, and what could have been a solvable problem in one or two days often ends up being a tragedy in the news.

Two decades ago, psychiatric patients in Alaska were given the right by law, AS 47.30.847, to have their grievance heard in front of an impartial body. No one has ever said who the impartial body is and their phone number. Also, due process and appeal process rights were never added to the law. The vagueness of the current grievance procedure rules for psychiatric patients leaves it up to the hospitals, bureaucrats in Juneau, and hospital employee unions to fill in the details.

Improving the psychiatric patient grievance procedure law is the goal of Work Draft 28-LSO189/U produced by Sen. Johnny Ellis -- The proposed bill would add an urgent grievance procedure for issues such as denial of service, medical or physical crisis. Call your legislator and tell them your opinion concerning the necessity of improving the grievance procedure laws for psychiatric patients and guardians.

For us it is a pretty simple conclusion: To reduce unnecessary tragedies, improve the grievance procedure laws and the impartial oversight for psychiatric patients and their guardians’ complaints.

The big question is does any politician have the political clout to do it?

Faith Myers and Dorrance Collins are mental health advocates who live in Anchorage.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.