Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Mental Health Attendant Dies Of Heart Attack After Violent Incident

An attendant at a Florida mental health institution died of a heart attack yesterday after coming to the aid of another attendant who was being attacked by a patient.
James Smith, 52, of Gretna apparently suffered a heart attack, the state said Friday. He was a ''unit treatment and rehabilitation'' worker at Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee for more than 32 years, the Department of Children and Families said.

The unit where the attack occurred is in a part of Florida State Hospital that treats criminal defendants who are found incompetent to continue with court proceedings because of mental illness, retardation or autism, or are acquitted of felony charges by reason of insanity.
Conditions at the unit are difficult and dangerous for its employees:
Employees in the maximum-security units at the hospital often have complained about unsafe working conditions and frequent fights with patients who are criminal offenders sent to the hospital as mentally unfit for trial or for psychiatric evaluation.

An inspector general investigation in July found that minimum staffing levels are sometimes not met at the hospital - from minutes to hours - as patients are escorted for treatment.

Jeanette Wynn, state president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, or AFSCME, said low-wage workers are threatened by understaffing.

The unit training and rehabilitation workers like Smith who interact with patients on a daily basis do not get the same ''special risk,'' retirement and wage benefits as the guards who patrol the hospital perimeter, or the nurses who care for patients, Wynn said.

"We've been trying to get them special risk for 10 years,'' said Wynn, who worked for years at FSH.
The report also said that
"between April 2004 and April 2006, Unit 23 had a 145-percent increase in aggressive behaviors, with Unit 24 at an 87-percent increase. The data indicated the overall increase in aggressive behaviors for both units was 116 percent." Despite "a significant increase in incidents over the past two years," the report said, "there has been no increase in staffing or minimum levels for many years."
Related Stories