For Some Mental Health Patients, Emergency Room Is A Last Resort

By Victoria Kim 10/24/16

But is the ER the ideal setting for a psychiatric patient?

For Some Mental Health Patients, Emergency Room Is A Last Resort

The emergency room is a gateway to mental health treatment for many people in need of psychiatric care. The ER is the last stop for such patients, but by the time they end up there it’s often too late for a chance at early intervention. 

New research presented Oct. 17 at the annual meeting of the American College of Emergency Physicians spotlights the huge gaps in mental health treatment in the U.S.

The study, which examined National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey data on mental health visits to the ER between 2001 to 2011, found that more people in need of psychiatric help relied on the ER for treatment compared with people with physical ailments. 

The data showed that 6% of all ER patients had a psychiatric condition. And more psychiatric patients were admitted to the hospital after the ER (more than 20%) compared with other patients (13%).

Psychiatric patients stayed in the ER for longer than other patients as well—23% stayed in the ER longer than six hours, compared with only 10% of other patients.

While the ER sees a lot of people in need of psychiatric care, it’s clearly not an ideal setting for someone with mental health problems. “We are the wrong site for these patients,” Dr. Thomas Chun, associate professor of emergency medicine and pediatrics at Brown University, told Kaiser Health News. “Our crazy, chaotic environment is not a good place for them.”

According to Suzanne Lippert, lead author of the study and clinical assistant professor in emergency medicine at Stanford University, a shortage of inpatient beds and a lack of trained professionals are some of the factors that account for the gaps in mental health care. 

In order to address these gaps, cities and states across America are trying new approaches to identify and treat mental health problems early on.

Cities like Minneapolis, San Antonio and Los Angeles are pairing police officers with mental health professionals to act as “co-responders” in emergency calls. These trained professionals are there to de-escalate situations that can turn violent.

And this month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation that requires mental health education to be taught at all middle and high schools across New York State. 

Mental health advocates like Glenn Liebman of the Mental Health Association of New York State (MHANYS) say the new law will help fill a massive gap in a teen’s development where mental health issues tend to be ignored.

“The average age of onset of a mental illness for 50% of the population is 14. And for anxiety disorders, even younger, 11. Until most of those people actually seek services? 10 years,” Liebman told TWC News this month. 

“So what happens during this 10-year gap? Kids are dropping out of school, kids are ending up in the juvenile justice system, kids might be homeless.”

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr

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