BALTIMORE (AP) — Maryland health officials named a new head for the state’s maximum-security mental hospital Wednesday, days after the third patient slaying there in 13 months.

Dr. David Helsel, the CEO of the Spring Grove Hospital Center in Catonsville, will now take on the top post at Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center. His appointment comes on the heels of two patient-on-patient slayings in a week at Perkins. Last year, a male patient killed a female patient.

Three staffers on duty the night of that slaying retired last year and the hospital’s chief executive stepped down in February. The hospital has been without a permanent leader since then.

Helsel said he is committed to the state’s mental health system and ready for a new challenge.

“I hate when something in our system looks like it might be broken,” he said. “I don’t know what may be wrong at Perkins. We have to look at every aspect of care and treatment.”

Perkins, which was founded in 1959, is Maryland’s only maximum-security psychiatric hospital. The hospital’s capacity is 248 patients and is staffed by 450 people. It has patients who need pretrial psychiatric evaluation, have been found not guilty by reason of insanity or who become mentally ill while in prison.

The number of patient-on-patient assaults at Perkins has increased from 116 in fiscal year 2007, when the average daily population was 212, to 181 assaults in 2011 when the population was  232, according to statistics provided by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Over that same period patient-on-staff assaults rose from 72 in 2007 to 94 in 2009 and then dipped to 78 in 2010 and 86 in 2011.

Killings at hospitals like Perkins are rare, especially two in a row, said Joan Gillece of the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors.

“I think that’s why people are just so bewildered, shocked and saddened,” she said. “This is very difficult for the patients.”

Her organization had planned to conduct training at the hospital this week, but a moment when patients and staff are reeling from the trauma of the back-to-back killings was not the right time.

During a visit to the hospital, Gillece, who worked at Perkins for 15 years, said patients are sad and concerned about their own safety. She said staffers were sobbing and comforting patients.

“The entire hospital is in mourning, that’s what it feels like to me,” she said.

Mental health advocates, like Laura Cain, of the Adult Mental Health Unit at the Maryland Disability Law Center, were concerned that cultural problems at the facility weren’t addressed after the 2010 killing, but they hope they are considered now.

“If you really did the work to help people get better and to create environments in which you reduce conflict you aren’t just relying on someone watching a security camera 24-7,” Cain said. “Because you are reducing the likelihood that there will be that kind of conflict between patients.”

Helsel said he will continue safety enhancements already in place. They include increasing the number of monitoring staffers, more frequent patient checks and routine changes to ensure staffers visit patients’ bedrooms more often. But his first jobs will be making a personal assessment and meeting with staff, patients and families.

“I have a feeling that one of the things I’ll be doing right away is looking at accountability and monitoring the people who are doing the monitoring to make sure the systems are being followed as designed,” he said, noting that this is already being examined.

In the long run, quality can’t be improved unless patients and staff are happy, Helsel said.

“But at Perkins, the situation is more urgent,” Helsel said. “My first priority is safety.”

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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