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Psychiatrist: Zappala's proposal to use county jail to house violent mentally ill not ideal

| Saturday, May 11, 2013,

Converting part of the Allegheny County Jail into a psychiatric ward for violent mentally ill patients could make more problems than it solves, says the top psychiatrist in Allegheny County's behavioral health unit.

District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. included the suggestion for such use of the jail in a four-page letter he sent Thursday to county elected leaders. He raised concerns about how facilities in the county treat mentally ill patients who are prone to violence.

The suggestion is part of a series of ongoing reviews stemming from John Shick's shooting spree on March 8 last year at UPMC Western Psychiatric and Institute & Clinic in Oakland.

Dr. Christine Martone, chief psychiatrist for the county's Behavior Assessment Unit, said Zappala is correct about a lack of beds for people, but doesn't believe the jail would be a good solution. She said she and Zappala discussed the issue a few months ago.

“I do not think it could be done. The mental health unit in the jail is not like an inpatient or outpatient facility. Certification is difficult,” Martone said. “... I'm not a lawyer, but I don't think any constitutional test would withstand putting these people in jail. The answer is more beds, and I applaud him for trying to be creative.”

Zappala said he made the suggestion, in part, to spark a conversation about how to address the shortage of places able to care for the violently mentally ill.

“We still haven't addressed the issue,” Zappala said on Friday. If the jail isn't the answer, he said, “OK. So what do they propose to do about it?”

Zappala softened a claim in his letter that Western Psych doesn't take patients with alcohol or drug problems unless they were treated there. Zappala said the information came from a clinician who worked outside of Western Psych. The district attorney said he will “follow up” with the person about the claim.

UPMC spokeswoman Gloria Kreps said the hospital treats “every patient in need of psychiatric services ... regardless of diagnosis.”

Martone said she has had no problems with Western Psych accepting patients from the jail, even those with drug and alcohol problems.

“I've gotten people in there from the jail. You just have to know the right people to call,” said Martone, who is part of the volunteer faculty at Western Psych.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald is reviewing Zappala's suggestions and declined comment, said his spokeswoman Amie Downs.

Martone said the state's closing of Mayview State Hospital in South Fayette exacerbated the lack of beds for people with mental health problems.

“You can't pin everything on any one entity. What we really need is more beds in the community and to make it easier for people to get into the hospital,” she said.

A spokesman for County Controller Chelsa Wagner said she plans to audit the $15 million mental health services contract between the county and Western Psych. Zappala said the contract could give the county leverage to push safety upgrades.

Shick, 30, of Oakland, who had a history of mental illness, killed therapist Michael Schaab, 25, of Regent Square and wounded five others before police killed him.

Bobby Kerlik and Mike Wereschagin are Trib Total Media staff writers. Reach Kerlik at 412-320-7886 or bkerlik@tribweb.com. Reach Wereschagin at 412-320-7900 or mwereschagin@tribweb.com.

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