Seven Days | October 26, 2016

Too Soon: Could the Suicide of a Burlington Artist Have Been Prevented?

In this powerful article about the life and suicide of Burlington artist Darshana Bolt, Jack McCullough, director of Vermont Legal Aid's Mental Health Law Project, says that evaluating and caring for suicidal patients requires balancing their safety and their liberty.

Jack maintains that we need more alternatives to hospitalization for patients in crisis and that the only people who should be in hospitals are those who can't be safely treated elsewhere.

Read Excerpts:

Burlington artist Darshana Bolt spent most of the hot, humid day of July 13 at the Howard Center's crisis center on Pine Street. The 31-year-old woman had threatened to kill herself, which landed her in the six-bed ASSIST Program in the city's south end. Despite being under supervision, shortly before 7 p.m. she informed staff that she was going outside to smoke a cigarette.

She never returned. ...

While the Bolt family finds fault with ASSIST, mental health advocates defend it. The Howard Center's program opened at 851 Pine Street to provide short-term residential care to patients in psychiatric crisis whose needs are not as acute as patients who are treated in hospital psychiatric wards. ...

Vermont needs more such facilities, not fewer, said Jack McCullough, director of Vermont Legal Aid's Mental Health Law Project. Even after learning of the state's investigation of ASSIST, and expressing sympathy for the Bolt family, he said the answer isn't to push more people into psych wards.

"The only people who should be in hospitals are people who can't be safely treated somewhere else," he said. "So it's a good thing that we have these alternatives to hospitalization."

Facilities such as ASSIST can't legally force people to stay, but they can "follow them out of the facility and keep track of them and try and talk them into staying," McCullough said. Staffers can always call the police if they believe a more secure environment is required. ...

Evaluating and caring for suicidal patients requires balancing their safety and their liberty, McCullough explained: "It's a big, big deal to have ... the power of the state ... confine them against their will and then, even beyond that, potentially inject them with powerful drugs ... that change the workings of their brain. I think we need to be extremely cautious in taking that step for anybody."

That longer-term involuntary commitment is even more complicated — it requires a court process — is a good thing, McCullough added.