Resistance is Futile

Despite new state and federal regulations, mentally ill Texans are still dying while being restrained by the very people they turn to for help

"I thought, 'If my child was mentally retarded or had a developmental disability, how would I want him treated?'" Mandt says.

To Mandt, the problem with many of today's training programs is that while they may claim to address de-escalation techniques, they put too much emphasis on takedowns and cling to the idea that pain is a reasonable tool to use on unruly patients.

"We don't teach pain compliance. We don't teach takedowns," Mandt says. "The patient's natural reaction to that is to resist, and that's where most people get hurt. Once you're on the ground, everybody piles on."

Macie Stafford is just one of at least 12 Texans who have died while being restrained in various state institutions since 1999.
Macie Stafford is just one of at least 12 Texans who have died while being restrained in various state institutions since 1999.
New laws are designed to publicly document restraint-related deaths, but Katherlyn LaGale Walker says she has to sue the state of Texas to get the truth behind her father's death.
Mark Graham
New laws are designed to publicly document restraint-related deaths, but Katherlyn LaGale Walker says she has to sue the state of Texas to get the truth behind her father's death.

In his experience, Mandt says, few patients are intent on causing injury when they become aggressive. But because of their illnesses, they can't effectively communicate their problems with mental health workers. So they act out.

"All behavior has meaning," Mandt says. "What we have to do is figure out what that behavior means."

To do that, Mandt says the first thing mental health workers must learn how to do is control their own behavior when tensions rise. Then, they need to learn how to stay relaxed so they can keep their patients relaxed. Everything they do, from their body posture to the tone of their voice, is an important part of the process.

Say, for example, a patient doesn't want to eat his dinner because it's hamburger and he doesn't like hamburger. Instead of asking why the patient isn't eating, workers will too often exert their authority over the patient, ordering him to eat or depriving him of dessert as punishment. It becomes a battle over who has control, and violence ensues.

"When do we empower people and allow them to make some of their own decisions?" Mandt says. "We're telling them when to get up, when to go to bed. The way we treat people sometimes, I don't know, it's just weird. People die over stupid stuff."

Peggy Perry is the assistant director of state mental health facilities at the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation. She could not speak about Macie Stafford's case because of the litigation, but says the restraint-training program the state created in 1980 works well, though it has required some tinkering over the years.

"Early on there was some criticism that when people got through with training they were ready to go out and take somebody down," Perry says. "In recent years, there's been a lot more emphasis on prevention."

Today, all state employees who deal with patients have to complete annual "competency based" training, meaning that instead of just completing an exam they have to demonstrate that they can handle an emergency situation. When restraints are used for real, Perry says, the employees involved, their supervisor and the patients themselves together discuss what happened and how the situation can be avoided in the future.

Perry says the steps are working. In the first quarter of 1997, for example, the department recorded 5.75 seclusions per 1,000 bed dates. In the first quarter of 2001, that number had dropped to 1.4 per 1,000 bed dates. The number of restraints the agency recorded in the same time period also dropped, from 4.26 to 3.31.

For her part, Perry agrees that the unit rules at places like Terrell are sometimes restrictive, but she says the state has become more enlightened about the importance of relaxing them.

"In the past it was like, 'Take your meds!' Now it's like, 'OK, you don't have to do that right now,'" Perry says.

Advocacy's Presas, who spends much of his time interviewing clients at Terrell, says he has seen a decrease in the number of restraint-related injuries there, but he says Stafford's case shows the state still has a long way to go.

"They tell you when to get up, when to eat, when you can smoke, when you can watch TV. The atmosphere is very punitive. I have clients there that have enough money for a cell phone and not once have they been able to keep it--staff always finds a reason to take it away," Presas says. "The fact that a death like Mr. Stafford's happens is a clear indication that something drastic has to be done. It's a total betrayal of trust that people have in this state agency. It shouldn't happen. One dead is just too many."


Deaths as the result of restraints occur at all types of facilities, from state hospitals and group homes for the mentally retarded to nursing homes, but Laurel Ridge Hospital in San Antonio keeps finding itself at the center of the controversy.

Laurel Ridge is a subsidiary of The Brown Schools, a Nashville-based corporation that was founded in Texas in 1940. Today, The Brown Schools is one of the largest privately run companies in the nation providing mental health care services for youths. Laurel Ridge is a long-term residential treatment center that accepts kids from all over the country and relies on Medicaid to pay for their care.

Located on an open campus just outside the city, Laurel Ridge has the appearance of a state-of-the-art home for troubled youths. The main building boasts stucco walls and smooth arched doorways, while a gracious red tile roof completes the Spanish look. Set beneath a dense collection of shade trees, the place looks like a Southwestern oasis.

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