Fewer Beds, More Patients Mean Mentally Ill Wait In Anguish In Emergency Rooms

Jun 7, 2017

It's a heartbreaking piece of arithmetic: In Massachusetts, the numbers of slots in inpatient psychiatric treatment centers just don't line up with the amount of people who need help. Where do would-be patients go in the meantime?

The answer, for some, is the hospital emergency room. The number of people seeking mental health or substance abuse treatment in Massachusetts ERs increased by 24 percent between 2010 and 2014. Those people are waiting a long time, too. A recent study showed such patients languish for hours and sometimes even days in ERs before they receive help—and the wait is worse for the poorest people.

Judith Shindul-Rothschild, a professor at Boston College, has published research on staffing and waits in hospital ERs.

"Due to the shrinking numbers, especially for children and adolescents, of psychiatric beds, we are seeing children and adolescents — and obviously adults as well — remaining in emergency rooms for longer and longer periods of time."

WBUR's Deborah Becker met with one mother of an addicted son whose seen over and over the toll such wait plays on addicts, patients and families. Read the story on WBUR's CommonHealth blog:

Patients Wait Hours, Days As Demand For ER Psychiatric Beds Grows

For five straight days this spring, Patty - who doesn't want her last name used to protect her son's privacy - sought refuge in the chapel at Heywood Hospital in Gardner. That's where her 28-year-old son Eric had been waiting for a psychiatric treatment bed.