Reading news reports on the past 5 years at Washington state’s largest psychiatric hospital is a saddening experience. Not only do the problems cited at Western State Hospital in Lakewood sound serious, they are repeated, again and again, year after year. In 2012, the hospital suffered 2 murders and a suicide. In the years since there have been several violent attacks by patients on other patients and staff. Then, in 2016, 2 prisoners escaped, both with histories of violence, one accused of an unusually brutal murder. After this, the hospital’s chief executive was fired.
But for all those years before, and in the year since, whistleblower reports from inside Western State, and expert evaluations by outsiders have agreed, the hospital is dangerously under-staffed, and relations between management and staffers working directly with patients are poisonous.
A compilation of on-line comments by present and past employees varied widely, but one pattern was pretty clear, the people who praised management and said they enjoyed working at Western State Hospital worked in offices or in the kitchen, while nurses and aides who had more direct contact with patients said things like: “You will probably be assaulted at some point,” or more specifically, “When I was hired they told me there would be security there to help us when patients got out of hand. This was a lie. During the time I was there I was attacked by a patient and at that time we did not have any security. There was also another nurse attacked during that time and she was in a coma the last time I asked about her.”
If staff fears of violence grab your attention, an even more repeated complaint is about bad management or bad teamwork. Said one Registered Nurse: “it’s not the patients that are the problem, it’s the staff. Upper management does not care about the problems among the staff. There is constant bullying that goes on, the managers know and do nothing about it. Another problem: We are always short staffed. The nurse to patient ratio is unsafe and the staffing numbers are unsafe.
The State, led by Gov. Jay Inslee has added more than $100 million to the hospital’s budget, but Nursing Supervisor Paul Vilja told The Associated Press that a lot of it goes to pay for “massive” amounts of both voluntary and involuntary overtime. The cause of that, Vilja told our guest, AP Investigative Reporter Martha Bellisle, is that the State Department of Social and Health Services has added administrative positions at the hospital, but has not fixed the shortage of nurses and psychiatrists.
One psychiatrist-whistleblower Dr Joseph Wainer says his public comments on the failures of Western State have brought down on him, “angry insults and threats, not from patients but from displeased executive leaders.
I’ve had to watch helplessly,” he says, “as administrative deceit and bullying of doctors, nurses, administrative assistants, etc., continue to escalate.”
A recent report by Inspectors who visited the hospital, and a recent survey of people who work there back up much of Dr. Wainer’s allegations, saying poor management decisions and inadequate staff training, have left workers in fear of retaliation from their bosses and violence from their patients.
Martha Bellisle is a reporter assigned to investigative subjects at the Associated Press (AP) news bureau in Seattle.