NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES
DENTON — You are locked in a strange place; you don't know exactly how you got there; and you can't get out.
It's chilling to imagine.
These are the tales of three women who said they felt imprisoned in two Denton mental hospitals: Mayhill and University Behavioral Health.
"There's something going on over there, and it's not good," said Tenaya Farber, one of the former patients. "It's shady. Something needs to be exposed."
"I don't know if you know how it feels to be held against your will, but basically, it's terrifying," said Phoebe Franco, another of the three patients.
Franco had never been in a mental institution. But that's where she found herself after a flareup of her Crohn's disease put her in an emergency clinic in Aubrey.
It was late one evening last March. The clinic was closing. Franco need to go to another facility. She said two people came into her room.
"I believe they were recruiting patients into Mayhill," Franco said.
Mayhill is a behavioral hospital in Denton, but Franco didn't know that. She was told Mayhill had the capability to treat Crohn's, a digestive disorder. So she signed papers to be admitted there.
By signing, she was unwittingly committing herself to a mental institution. And once she was there, she couldn't get out.
For two days, her parents did not know where she was. Her medical doctor of 27 years, they said, was not allowed to see her.
"She wasn't getting her [Crohn's] medication, you know," said Phoebe's mother, June Franco. "She could have died. It's not a disease you fool around with."
Laura Hilton's journey to University Behavioral Health of Denton, Mayhill's sister hospital, began after a night of drinking followed by too many sleeping pills. She ended up at a hospital in Frisco.
The next morning, she said a woman came into her room and told Laura she would be "assessing" her.
"The whole time, I thought she worked for the hospital, and she works for UBH," Hilton said.
The assessor told her she was being transferred to UBH.
"I didn't have an option," Hilton said.
News 8 interviewed one former UBH assessor who asked not to be identified. She was one of a handful of assessors who visited local medical hospitals evaluating patients for their need to be placed in a mental institution. She was paid $125 per assessment.
If she didn't refer patients to UBH Denton and Mayhill, the assessor told us, she'd have to discuss it with her supervisor. She said her evaluations were often altered, and that as many as half of the people working as UBH/Mayhill assessors were not Licensed Professional Counselors, but were in training for their licenses.
Universal Health Services, a Fortune 500 company, owns Mayhill and UBH, and operates more than 180 mental hospitals and facilities across the country. Last year, UHS purchased Mayhill and eight other mental hospitals for more than $500 million.
Mayhill was granted "Top Performers" status by the Joint Commission, which certifies hospitals.
UHS declined to be interviewed on camera for this story, and did not respond to written questions.
In a statement, the company said: "University Behavioral Health of Denton and Mayhill Hospital are unable to provide specific comment on these matters, as they potentially relate to pending litigation. [...] UBH Denton and Mayhill’s priority is providing quality health care to our patients and we remain focused on that goal."
"I had to fight tooth and nail to get out of there," Tenaya Farber said.
She checked into UBH Denton in September to have her medications evaluated. She expected to stay for 72 hours.
"And when the 72 hours were up, I had specifically asked I want to leave," Farber said. "I know my rights, and I was told by the nursing staff that I would not be, and that if I tried to ask to leave, it was going on my record."
The three women told News 8 they were treated as if they'd done something wrong while they were institutionalized, and that they were continually threatened with a court appearance if they tried to get out.
Mayhill/UBH rules say patients can leave when they wish, unless overruled by a staff doctor. Patients file a form, and are supposed to have their cases reviewed by a doctor within four hours.
Phoebe Franco said she filed the forms twice. Nothing happened.
When Tenaya Farber asked to be released, she said the staff told her she'd have to go to court -- mental health court in Denton, where her stability would be evaluated by a judge.
"[The staff member] just said, 'Well, you'll to go to court and the judge will have to decide and you might have to stay here longer, another two weeks longer,'" Farber said.
Wanda Mohr has heard a lot of this before. She is a nationally-known psychiatric nurse who investigated problems in Texas mental hospitals in the 1990s. Her work led to legal action by the State of Texas.
She spoke in general terms about practices she's observed across the country.
"The threat that's used is, 'We will take you to court and have you involuntarily admitted, and then you won't have any rights, you won't be able to leave the hospital,' and that isn't true," Mohr said.
Farber eventually got out on a Wednesday, after she threatened legal action against UBH.
Each of the three women or their insurance company was billed more than $1,000 per day for their stays.
None of the patients can determine what happened to them. They can't obtain their records. Each has been told it will cost between $100 and $500 to get a copy.
That's money none of them has.
"You have an absolute right to your medical record," Wanda Mohr said. "That says that somebody's trying to cover something up -- or they're just plain foot-dragging or hoping these folks would go away."
Under the Freedom of Information Act, News 8 asked for records of complaints against the hospitals for the last three years.
UBH Denton has 15 complaints, Mayhill, eight. The State of Texas says that is not above average.