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Recently, mental health officials have expressed concern regarding population shifts occurring in public psychiatric hospitals. Specifically, they have seen an increase in the number of “forensically involved” patients in these facilities. This trend is seen, in part, as an increase in the number of persons who have been brought to court on a criminal charge and subsequently court-ordered to receive inpatient services at state psychiatric hospitals. These “forensic patients’” are referred to the state psychiatric hospitals to be evaluated (e.g. to determine their mental status at the time of the crime and their ability to comprehend court proceedings and/or assist their attorney with their case because of an apparent mental illness) or to be restored (e.g. to receive treatment services and/or educational interventions aimed at helping defendants regain their ability to understand the court process) prior to adjudication.
In recent years mental health officials have reported a rise in the number of forensic patients present within their state psychiatric hospitals and the adverse impacts that these trends had on their hospitals. To date there have been no large-scale national studies conducted to determine if these trends are specific only to a few states or representative of a more global trend. The purpose of this study was to investigate these reported trends and their national prevalence.
The forensic directors of each state behavioral health agency (including the District of Columbia) were sent an Excel spreadsheet that had two components: a questionnaire and data tables with information collected between 1996 and 2014 from the State Profiling System maintained by the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors Research Institute. They were asked to verify and update these data and respond to the questionnaire.
Responses showed a 76% increase nationally in the number of forensic patients in state psychiatric hospitals between 1999 and 2014. The largest increase was for individuals who were court-committed after being found incompetent to stand trial and in need of inpatient restoration services.
The data reviewed here indicate that increases in forensic referrals to state psychiatric hospitals, while not uniform across all states, are nonetheless substantial.
More research is needed to determine whether this multi-state trend is merely a coincidence of differing local factors occurring in many states, or a product of larger systemic factors affecting mental health agencies and the courts.
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