The V.I. Health Department has received a $2.2 million federal grant for mental health disaster assistance, but tens of millions more are needed for the Virgin Islands government to construct appropriate facilities that will help address the growing mental health crisis in the territory.
“The Department of Health has been spending funding to send persons off-island for treatment, and that has been because we don’t have a local facility,” said Nicole Syms, deputy commissioner of the Health Department for mental health.
Syms said plans are in place to construct such a facility, but it’s “going to cost the territory upwards of $30 million that’s going to get something built to standard that’s going to last for decades and is going to be its own revenue-generating measure.”
U.S. District Court Judge Curtis Gomez — who’s overseeing a consent decree meant to ensure prisoners are kept in conditions of confinement that don’t violate the Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment — has repeatedly criticized the Health Department for failing to provide adequate treatment to the chronically mentally ill.
Syms said the department is working to retrofit some dorms at Golden Grove Adult Correctional Facility on St. Croix to house individuals found not guilty by reason of insanity — who by law must be housed in a treatment facility, not jail — and owns 9.9 acres in Anna’s Hope on St. Croix where a facility could be built.
However, Syms said it will take several departments working together to come up with the funds necessary.
“No department in the territory can take on a $30 million charge on their own at this time,” Syms said.
Syms said the government is currently spending around $15 million to $20 million a year to house Virgin Islanders in need of treatment in private facilities on the mainland.
A total of $6.5 million is being spent by the Health Department to house around 26 to 30 individuals in stateside treatment facilities, and Syms said the remainder is being spent by the Human Services Department to house adolescents on the mainland. Syms said she was unsure how many adolescents are in treatment off-island at this time.
While it might be easy to say the department should just spend those funds on constructing a new facility in the territory, Syms said there are a lot of factors at play.
“We can’t do both, there’s no way that we would be able to accumulate $20 million one time, or even half of that to begin the process, and to pay for people to be seen on a daily basis. Behavioral health is a daily charge for service, and so our plan is to at least begin a stage by stage build-out that would allow us to retrofit a particular area,” Syms said.
While the American Civil Liberties Union has called for the Eldra Shulterbrandt facility on St. Thomas to be transformed into a forensic psychiatric facility capable of housing mentally ill prisoners, Syms said that location is not suitable because its lack of space and location in a residential area.
“Our goal right now is to implement plans that center around prevention. Prevention and education. A lot of times what we see is persons that suffer from either behavioral health issues or psychiatric disorders that have gone untreated for a very long time,” Syms said.
Following the 2017 hurricanes, the number of individuals seeking mental health treatment has grown, prompting Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. to sign an executive order in March declaring a mental health emergency due to a shortage of psychiatric physicians and behavioral health providers.
The order will remain in effect until the Health Department “confirms that there are enough providers of psychiatric care in the territory or for 180 days,” according to Government House Communications Director Richard Motta Jr.
Syms said Bryan’s order is already bearing fruit, and the department applied for and received a $2.2 million surge grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to address the growing mental health crisis.
“It’s not a secret that the territory is lacking psychiatrists,” Syms said.
The grant will not only enable the government to partner with groups that can help recruit more psychiatric staff and improve services, but also provide additional training and education on the latest treatments and medication alternatives. Syms said the grant will also provide staff more freedom to partner with other departments and organizations to develop programs like equestrian, swim and gardening therapy, Syms said.
“Even when the grant is over, we won’t be left empty-handed. We will have implemented a solid foundation of training,” Syms said. “It’s really designed to help us to strengthen what we have now.”
Syms said she understands that while government officials and politicians debate funding and site plans, Virgin Islanders continue to suffer.
“I know that it’s hard, especially for persons in our community that face it or go through it daily with a family member, close friend or themselves, and I just want to reinforce that we recognize that,” Syms said. “We’re going to be offering a lot more town hall meetings, group meetings and counseling, because surprisingly enough, just giving persons a platform to discuss what they’re experiencing helps a lot with self-care.”
She also urged those struggling with behavioral mental health issues to seek out assistance, and follow through with treatment despite the challenges involved.
“I just want to make sure everyone accepts the help that’s coming and just kind of work with us to improve our overall behavioral health in the territory,” Syms said. “We are all change agents when it comes to behavioral health.”