Emergency-room overload

California’s emergency rooms are overburdened with psychiatric patients

Hospital emergency departments in California are struggling with an overwhelming increase in mental-health patients, according to a recent story in the Los Angeles Times.

As state funding for treating the mentally ill has decreased, properly equipped facilities have become increasingly scarce as well. In 1996, there were 8,500 acute-inpatient psychiatric beds statewide; now there are 6,500.

In Los Angeles County, if hospitals do not have the facilities and staff to treat a patient, they will call a county mental-health department to send an evaluation team; in some cases, it takes more than a day for the team to respond. Patients placed on three-day psychiatric hold can find themselves languishing for days in already-overtaxed emergency rooms while waiting for space in a suitable treatment facility.

“There has been a wholesale reduction across the state for crisis services for individuals with mental illness,” said Sheree Kruckenberg, vice president of behavioral health at the California Hospital Association. “The default in many communities is the only 24/7 provider, an emergency room.”