Mental Health Patients with Nowhere Else to Go are Overwhelming Emergency Departments

October 24, 2018 12:08 PM | Sally Winkelman (Administrator)

October 18, STAT

When I walk through my hospital’s emergency department, I’m sometimes overwhelmed by the number of people languishing there as they wait for help with a mental health issue, like the woman clutching her chest as if she’s having a heart attack but is really suffering from a panic attack. It’s her third time here in a week.

She is just one of the hundreds of patients who will be admitted this year to my emergency department in the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center in Palmer, Alaska, experiencing psychiatric emergencies.

Many stay in the emergency department for hours; some even stay there for a few days. The practice, called psychiatric boarding, occurs when an individual with a mental health condition is kept in an emergency department because no appropriate mental health care is available. It’s rampant around the country.

Millions of Americans with mental health issues are not getting the care they need. It’s a crisis so profound that it is overwhelming emergency departments and the entire health care system. The causes? Too few outpatient resources and inpatient treatment options for mental health issues; separate systems for treating mental health and physical health; and a shortage of specialists able to respond to patients in the midst of mental health crises, to name just a few.

I believe hospitals can curb this trend by doing a few key things, beginning with improved collaboration.

The statistics are staggering: Nearly 1 in 5 U.S. adults — about 44 million — experiences mental illness in a given year, a number that is certain to increase. And it comes at a time when the demand for mental health professionals is outstripping the supply. For psychiatrists alone, a 2017 report published by the National Council for Behavioral Health estimates the shortage will be between 6,100 and 15,600 practitioners by 2025. That same report points out that lack of access to psychiatric services in hospital emergency departments is especially problematic. 

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