Psychiatric emergency response teams get OK by Senate committee amid mental health update

Psychiatric emergency response teams get OK by Senate committee amid mental health update

CHARLOTTE AMALIE — Health Committee lawmakers approved a previously tabled measure to provide mobile mental health crisis intervention services through a Psychiatric Emergency Response Team — or PERT — and development of the 9-8-8 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Bill sponsor Sen. Diane Capehart called on her colleagues to start working “on the infrastructure to improve the quality of life for individuals who are having a dark time in their life.”

Following the vote, lawmakers received a sprawling and extensive review of mental and psychiatric health care and services from community stakeholders, including representatives from the V.I. Health and Human Services departments, Schneider and Luis Hospitals, Frederiksted Health Care, St. Thomas East End Medical Center, and multiple territory nonprofits dedicated to the treatment of mental health and substance abuse.

Psychiatric emergency response teams get OK by Senate committee amid mental health update

“We are in full-blown crisis mode with mental health services here on the island,” said Dr. Laurie McCormick, former staff psychiatrist at Schneider Hospital, who called the situation “even worse than ever now.”

McCormick questioned how tragedies like a mentally-ill man’s recent stabbing murder of his father in March or crimes committed by others with schizophrenia or severe bipolar disorder against family members in recent months could happen.

The answer, she said, is a lack of consistent psychiatric care in the territory. McCormick pointed out that people with mental illness are not usually violent and are in fact more likely to be the victims of crime rather than the perpetrators.

According to Dr. Tai Hunte-Ceasar, chief medical officer for the Health Department, behavioral health services have been among the most sought-after for those participating in the ongoing V.I. Wellness Fair — a weeklong event staffed by hundreds of U.S. military healthcare providers in the territory.

Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. declared a state of emergency in response to mental health after taking office in 2019. The V.I. Behavioral Health Act, signed into law in 2022, called for the creation of additional resources including crisis intervention teams trained in mental health response and “at least one public Behavioral Health Treatment Facility in the Virgin Islands.”

Bryan also announced plans in June 2023 to use $20 million from the Virgin Islands government’s settlement with the estate of sex offender Jeffrey Epstein to purchase the former Seaview nursing home and repurpose it as a mental health facility.

He walked those plans back in March, stating that he said he’d “try to purchase Seaview” but that it would be up to the Legislature to appropriate funding. He also stated that the government has been working to expand the Eldra Schulterbrandt long-term care facility on St. Thomas and reconstruct the Anna’s Hope facility on St. Croix.

Addressing lawmakers on Wednesday, McCormick said throwing money at “brick and mortar” doesn’t solve the problem if there’s not a designated community mental health psychiatrist to facilitate involuntary commitments and coordinate care for people with serious mental health illnesses.

By KIT MACAVOY/V.I. Daily News

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