Apr 9, 2012
There aren’t too many jobs more challenging than working in a state mental health facility. These days, those challenges are even tougher, as budget cutbacks and changing treatment philosophies make working conditions even tougher for mental health workers.
When mentally ill or psychotic patients get out of control at New Mexico University Hospital in Albuquerque, it’s the job of CWA’s mental health associates and mental health techs to physically restrain them. The hospital administration is moving away from using padded restraints or straps and instead has directed workers to keep patients under control.
“Right now we are struggling to keep patients restrained without the usual tools,” explained Adam Koontz, a mental health associate for 13 years, and vice president of CWA Local 7076. “It’s not easy physically restraining a patient who believes that you are a demon.”
For workers, the new policy has meant more injuries, including back injuries, contusions, and concussions. Some workers have been attacked and beaten by patients.
Workers have asked hospital administrators to provide padded shields or some other form of protection the mental health workers can use with an unruly patient, but the hospital has denied the request. “It’s not unusual for us to have to hold on to a patient for over an hour,” said Koontz.
Workers also requested advanced crisis prevention training, but so far the hospital has trained just one person and hasn’t offered any more sessions. Most workers typically work an eight-hour shift for four or five days a week, but for some, putting in more than 100 hours a week isn’t unusual.
Patients at the university hospital include children aged 5 to 18, adults, and elderly persons. The average length of a stay for most patients is six to nine days, but Koontz said patients keep coming back because the hospital and the insurance companies focus more on treating the symptoms and not the cause.
“It’s really sad that we are throwing people back into the community with very little therapy. The trend is toward more medication and in managing the patient, when what we need is more one-on-one therapy that is reality-based and can help the patients improve.”
Understaffing and other critical issues are not getting attention from hospital administration, nor does the mental health unit benefit from state funds that are being channeled to more profitable parts of the university’s hospital system. Many of the buildings they work in are deteriorating and mold is becoming an increasing issue, causing some workers to suffer with respiratory problems.
Working through their labor-management and safety and health committees, workers are taking their issues to management regularly, but improvements come slowly.