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People in a Mental Health Crisis Shouldn't Have to Go to the ER

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Editor's Note

If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

I’d felt the dark cloud of depression looming over me for weeks. I had an assortment of physical health issues and pain flaring up physicians jumped on treating. I was sent to specialist after specialist after specialist for these physical issues, and my experiences with them were empathetic staff and concerned physicians genuinely wanting to find answers and help. Even when my physical issues got bad enough that I went to the ER, I was treated with respect and dignity.

The cloud of depression quickly grew into a full-on storm. I became suicidal and I knew I desperately needed help. I suppose the things going on in my life and the physical issues I was having at the time were vulnerabilities to this particular episode of depression occurring. But, this isn’t about why it happened, this is about how it was and always has been treated.

After calling my therapist on a Sunday after her business hours, something I have never done before, to let her know I was suicidal and had a plan, it was decided I needed to get help immediately. The problem with getting help for a mental health crisis is it almost always requires a trip to the ER. You can’t just bypass the ER and check yourself into a behavioral health unit voluntarily, I know this from previous experiences. I also knew once in the ER, I would be placed on an involuntary hold for a minimum of 72 hours. I am fortunate to have a supportive family willing to step in and help when I need help. I called my husband and mom so they could come manage my kids, pets and household while I’d be gone, packed a bag and headed to the ER.

Once upon a time, I worked in the ER. I know some of the staff and doctors feel an annoyance toward people who come in with mental health issues. I’ve heard mental health patients talked about in a negative manner behind their backs firsthand. Many don’t want to have to deal with mental health issues, they want to be doing what they’ve been trained the most for, which is physical health issues. It’s not the patient’s fault the ER is the only way to access care in a mental health crisis, and I suppose it isn’t the staff undertrained in mental health’s fault really either.

I get to the ER and the receptionist asks me what I’m there for, I tell her, she tells me to have a seat in the waiting room. I wait a couple hours and finally my name is called to go back. The nurse takes my vitals while telling me how “selfish” it would be to take my own life when I have kids to think about and so much to live for.

I got lucky on this visit, they weren’t too busy, so I was put in an ER room rather than a gurney in the ER hall. The physician came and explained someone from the mental health unit would be by to ask me some questions. I waited four hours for said person to arrive. When he got there, he asked me all the required mental health crisis questions, and then, surprise! He put me on a 5150 hold. A guard was placed outside my door to keep watch of me. There was a shortage of mental health beds in the mental health unit there, so I had to wait until they could find me a bed elsewhere when one opened up, this isn’t uncommon.

So, I waited hours more until a bed opened up in a mental health unit that was two hours away. I was to be transported there by ambulance this time, not a police car which has happened before. The ambulance arrived after yet even more hours and finally off we went to the place I needed to go for mental health treatment.

Why, why why, are we still subjecting people having a mental health crisis to having to go to the ER? Wouldn’t it make so much more sense for there to be mental health hospitals for people in the midst of a mental health crisis to go to where the entire staff specializes in mental health care? Shouldn’t we at least be given the option to voluntarily admit ourselves when we know we need it?

I don’t know if this is an option in other places, but I know it isn’t where I live, and I know I’ve read countless stories from others about how they are upset this is the way people with mental illness have to get help in a crisis. I personally waited so long to get help this time, even though I knew I needed it because of how the process is. If we had facilities strictly for mental health with their own ER, maybe more people would seek help. Maybe people would seek help sooner. Maybe it would save lives.

Getty image by AaronAmat

Originally published: April 27, 2021
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