WINCHESTER — An incident on Tuesday evening drove home the need to have facilities available for people suffering from mental health crises.

Just as Winchester Police Chief John Piper was making a presentation to City Council about Virginia's recent decision to stop accepting new admissions at five of its eight state-run mental health facilities due to staffing shortages and unsafe working conditions, officers from his department were attempting to help a suicidal person on the grounds of the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley. The incident ended a short time later with no injuries.

Now that Western State Hospital in Staunton and four other state-run psychiatric facilities are no longer admitting new patients, Piper told council that local police have no other option but to take people experiencing mental health emergencies to Winchester Medical Center.

According to Piper, the Winchester Police Department helps a significant number of people each year who need mental health care.

"In FY '21 [which ran from July 1, 2020, to June 30, 2021], we dealt with 267 cases that resulted in either an ECO, which is an Emergency Custody Order, or a TDO, which is a Temporary Detention Order," Piper said.

If a person experiencing a mental health crisis presents an immediate threat to themselves or others, Piper said they are taken to Winchester Medical Center on an ECO and evaluated for up to eight hours. If a determination is then made that the person needs treatment, a magistrate can issue a TDO that requires the individual to be admitted to a psychiatric facility. TDOs for adults last for 72 hours, while those for juveniles extend to 96 hours.

Piper said Winchester Medical Center is required to see anyone in need. However, the hospital on Amherst Street has limited beds for adult psychiatric patients and none for juveniles. Patients with a TDO will be kept at the medical center for the required amount of time, but, if no bed is available, they must be accompanied by a police officer.

"It's not unusual for my officers to be sitting in the hospital for upwards of 72 hours or 96 hours for a juvenile," Piper said.

Due to the current situation, Winchester Medical Center is the only local facility accepting patients experiencing mental health emergencies.

"If a bed is not available, the end result is that a person is released back into the same environment from whence they came and they've received little or no psychiatric care," Piper said.

City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to send a letter to Del. Bill Wiley, R-Winchester, and state Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Upperville, sharing their concerns about Virginia halting new admissions at five state-run psychiatric facilities.

"Predictably, this action stands to result in a potentially catastrophic chain of far-reaching consequences," the letter states. "First and foremost, our citizens who struggle with significant mental health issues will be prevented from receiving important services they and their families desperately need in times of crisis. Furthermore, there will be an increased burden on local law enforcement, whose officers are often the first responders to mental health crises."

Piper said police already spend a lot of time and money responding to psychiatric emergencies. For example, the 267 ECO and TDO cases in fiscal year 2021 required the Winchester Police Department to invest 1,951 working hours at a cost of approximately $55,594.

He said he is now concerned about how much more time his officers must supervise a person in crisis rather than patrolling the streets.

"But the bigger issue in my mind is the impact that it has on a person in crisis who's not receiving the psychiatric care they desperately need," Piper said.

On Wednesday, Gov. Ralph Northam proposed spending $485 million on Virginia's behavioral health system, including funding to alleviate unprecedented staffing shortages in the state's adult mental health hospitals that led to closing doors to new admissions earlier this month, according to The Washington Post.

— Contact Brian Brehm at bbrehm@winchesterstar.com

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