North Carolina law to make hospital violence a felony may have unintended consequences

A new law making it a felony to commit acts of violence in North Carolina hospitals could have unintended consequences for patients with mental illness, substance abuse issues or-- as is common--a combination of both, according to the Charlotte News-Observer. 

The legislation is intended as a bulwark against attacks on hospital workers, which make up 75 percent of workplace violence cases and are currently on the rise, according to the Occupational Health Safety Network,

State lawmakers voted overwhelmingly in favor of the law, which is slated to go into effect Dec. 1. Democratic state Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, however, expressed concern that the law will only end up sending mentally ill people to jails and prison.

"I just don't think that we have done a comprehensive study to find out how that category of people can be protected," Smith-Ingram said. 

Violence in hospitals has spiked in recent years, largely because of a lack of comprehensive mental health services. The state of North Carolina reduced the number of beds for psychiatric patients by 700 from 2005 to 2010, according to the publication, and ERs are now being flooded with people with psychiatric disorders that are often complicated by substance abuse.

Earlier this year, WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh had to shut its ER for three hours to all but the most critical patients because staff were completely overwhelmed by an influx of 65 psychiatric cases. The hospital reported 81 attacks against personnel in 2014.

Often, ER nurses and other personnel do not report violent incidents because they do not want to bother with the documentation and paperwork, FierceHealthcare previously reported. Workers are also far less likely to press charges against attackers who they know are mentally ill.

But the stiffer penalties in North Carolina won't be an effective deterrent to the violence, said Ann Akland, who sits on the board of directors for the Wake County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The new law, she said, demonstrates just how little laypeople understand mental illness. 

To learn more:
-- read the article in the News-Observer here

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