Every day, hundreds of Americans wait in an endless limbo, oftentimes against their will, in an emergency room in hospitals across the country. Despite continuing rhetoric from both local and federal politicians, nothing has changed.
America suffers from a growing lack of inpatient psychiatric beds in psychiatric hospitals. The problem results in citizens being deprived of their Constitutional rights every day.
Nobody seems to care. And nothing is being done to address the problem.
New Hampshire Public Radio (NHPR) brings us the sad story of Meme, a 61-year-old senior woman who was committed to an involuntary stay for psychiatric problems based upon the observations of local police and her adult daughter.
Which would ordinarily be okay (while not ideal), as most states have a 72-hour psychiatric hold designed to determine if a person is in fact a danger to themselves or others. During those 3 days, the person is supposed to be evaluated by trained mental health professionals in a psychiatric facility. In most states, patients have a right to a hearing before a judge within three days. This timelines strikes a balance between public safety and each citizen’s Constitutional rights.
As NHPR reports, though, things have gone off the rails in many states because of the lack of psychiatric beds. In Meme’s case, instead of going to a psychiatric hospital, she was transported to the emergency room at the local hospital, St. Joseph Hospital in Nashua, N.H. And that’s where the problems began:
The psychiatric facilities in New Hampshire are all full. On any given day, there is a waitlist of around 35 people. And those hearings at which Meme could argue to a judge that she should be allowed to go home — those are held only at those psychiatric facilities.
The result: Meme couldn’t leave the ER, and she couldn’t get a hearing. Not until a bed opened up.
“And they won’t even tell you what number you are,” said Meme of the hospital staff. “You ask every day, ‘What number am I?’ ‘Oh, we don’t know.’ “
This issue is winding its way through the federal court system. Because it appears that hundreds if not thousands of American’s rights are being violated every day as they are held against their will long beyond what the law allows:
The legality of this situation is now being debated in federal court. The question is not whether Meme should’ve been forced to come to this emergency department in the first place; it’s whether her rights were violated once she got there.
Meme ended up spending 20 days locked inside a wing of St. Joseph’s emergency department. She says that her access to visitors, the telephone and the bathroom were limited and that hospital staff concerned about her committing suicide restricted what objects she could have.
Could you imagine locking up a senior citizen against their will for nearly three weeks!? It sounds like something that would happen in a third-world country, or a country that has no mental health care system. Not in America.
A Growing, Nationwide Problem
This isn’t a problem unique to New Hampshire. Most states are grappling with the issue of too few psychiatric beds. According to the article, over 70 percent of ER doctors report having to provide room and board for psychiatric patients in their emergency rooms. ERs, of course, are designed to handle health emergencies — not psychiatric ones. And they’re certainly not designed for providing a long-term stay for any patient.
The answer to this problem is simple — build more psychiatric hospital beds. But with a co-occuring shortage of psychiatrists and other trained mental health professionals to staff such facilities, it’s very difficult to address the problem without significant long-term changes in the way the country addresses the mental health care system.
If federal and state governments prioritized providing inpatient psychiatric care (through adequate funding of such efforts) to their citizens, this problem could be resolved. Instead they continue to kick the ball down the road, hoping someone else will deal with it. Or they proudly note the addition of a dozen beds when a hundred are actually what’s needed.
Maybe the courts can change lawmakers’ minds, because it is patently unlawful to hold a person against their will beyond what the law provides for (3 days) without a court hearing.
And perhaps most of us wonder what this has to do with us, as we think, “Well, this could never happen to me!” Maybe, maybe not. But it could happen to a family member or someone you care about. And it’s happening right now, every day, where you live.
For more information
Read the full NHPR article: Woman Detained In Hospital For Weeks Joins Lawsuit Against New Hampshire