Emergency rooms confront chaos
By Rap Lewis
Hospital emergency rooms across the country are dealing with a spike in psychiatric emergencies – attempted suicide, severe depression, psychosis – as states slash funding for mental health services while the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression takes its toll.
The harrowing story is spelled out in a three and a half page report by Reuters correspondents Julie Steenhuysen and Jilian Mincer.
Emergency rooms have long been overburdened by uninsured patients who wait until their ailments become critical before seeking care.
What ER physicians are encountering now offers grim testimony about the ways that economic hardship is deepening the mental health crisis.
“These are people without a previous psychiatric history who are coming in and telling us they’ve lost their jobs, they’ve lost their homes, they can’t provide for their families, and they are becoming severely depressed,” said Dr. Felicia Smith, director of the acute psychiatric service at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
Visits to the hospital’s psychiatric emergency department have climbed 20 percent in the past three years, and “we’ve seen actually more very serious suicide attempts in that population,” Dr. Smith said.
Patients with chronic mental illness have no place to go because of the severe cutbacks in mental health facilities. Doctors report seeing people whose most critical need is a warm bed.
Hospitals are not prepared for increased numbers of psychiatric patients, said Randall Hagar, director of government affairs for the California Psychiatric Association. Over the past two years, California cut $587 million in state-funded mental health services.
“They don’t have secure holding rooms. They don’t have quiet spaces. They don’t have a lot of things you need to help calm down a person in an acute psychiatric crisis,” Hagar said.
Back in 2006, the Institute of Medicine reported that U..S. emergency departments were already overtaxed and overcrowded.
“Now you are adding in patients who are unsafe to leave but yet have nowhere to go,” said Dr. Bret Nicks, an emergency physician at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston- Salem.