Video visitation: Western State Hospital leads the way in letting patients, families connect

With patients already on site, Western State Hospital has shifted operations to their new campus in Staunton on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013.
With patients already on site, Western State Hospital has shifted operations to their new campus in Staunton on Tuesday, Nov. 19, 2013.

STAUNTON — “Over the past several months, Virginia’s Western State Hospital has quietly accomplished something extraordinary,” said Karl Polzer in his testimony to the Virginia General Assembly. “It is the first Virginia state psychiatric hospital to use tele-visiting to connect its residents with their families.”

On April 11, Governor Youngkin signed HB 388, passed unanimously in the House and Senate, that requires the director of each of the state’s 10 mental health hospitals to have a process in place to facilitate virtual visitation effective July 1.

Polzer, founder of the Center on Capital & Social Equity in Falls Church, has a close family member who is a patient at Western State Hospital. When the pandemic suspended in-person visitations for more than a year, the family’s ability to communicate with their loved one became nearly impossible.

“During that time, we had no way to communicate with our family member,” said Polzer. “We could not visit in person. We could not talk to them. And we could not see them. We felt powerless to help them. I wondered what it felt like for them.”

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Polzer started the Center on Capital & Social Equity seven years ago to explore larger issues of economic inequality and to advocate for the “bottom 50%,” he said. Having a family member with disabilities gave him a window into the lives of people who make low wages and struggle to keep jobs.

When his family member was first hospitalized in 2016, Polzer became active in pushing for more beds at psychiatric facilities and decided to start a mental health Facebook page and build a coalition. As much as the family enjoyed doing this advocacy work, when his family member was back in the community, they discontinued to protect their privacy.

“It’s really hard doing advocacy on mental health issues related to a family member because of privacy and stigma issues,” said Polzer. “ You have a hand tied behind your back.”

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How video visitation started at Western State Hospital

Just as the world began to shift to Zoom to stay connected, Polzer asked Dr. Mary Clare Smith, the director at Western State Hospital, if it would be possible to start something similar there.

"To my pleasant surprise, when I made the case, she said yes."

The Center on Capital & Social Equity worked with staff at Western State to develop a pilot program after in-person visitation was suspended due to COVID-19. But it didn't happen overnight. It took six months to start the pilot program with 10 patients and families who had a chance to see and speak to each other in time for the holiday season in 2020.

"People living in Virginia’s mental health hospitals and other institutions are often forgotten in the process of adopting communications technology," said Polzer. "They should be among the first included, not the last."

In early 2021, the family and advocacy center began to work with state officials to expand access to video visits to all 10 state hospitals. With the help of state legislators, they urged health officials in the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to extend access to video-visitation at all mental health facilities in Virginia.

"They said they would try," said Polzer. "But later in the year at least on facility reported that it couldn't due to inadequate staffing. Video visiting was slow to develop at others."

By mid-2021, Northern Virginia Mental Health Institute made video visitation available to patients staying more than one year.

"By late 2021, as state hospitals suffered a severe staffing shortage, we had concerns that family video visitation was losing momentum amidst the politics surrounding budget and staffing."

There was back-sliding at least one hospital and the program was not fully implemented at others.

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"In light of these developments, we approached NAMI and Del. Willett to introduce legislation to make sure video visitation is fully implemented and maintained as a regular feature of life at state hospitals."

Western State, the Virginia chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Willett and his staff were instrumental in making this happen, he said.

"It will help thousands of patients and their families and friends stay connected and could positively impact patient care and hospital transparency," said Polzer. "Video visits have been particularly helpful to hospitals in rural areas and the southern parts of the state."

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— Monique Calello (she/her) is a social justice reporter with The News Leader located in the Shenandoah Valley, Virginia. Story ideas are always welcome. You can reach her at Twitter @moniquecalello.

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This article originally appeared on Staunton News Leader: Virginia mental hospitals video visitation become law: Western State