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Not Enough Psychiatric Beds

I read today that Eastern Ontario has started a bed registry to keep track of where open psychiatric beds are available. This is something I’ve long advocated. The United States now has less than 10 percent of the beds it used to have 50 years ago. Granted, treatment has improved and community resources are enhanced. But there are still areas that often do not have a sufficient number of hospital beds for folks needing acute inpatient psychiatric care.

The Ontario story described in the Ottawa Citizen states that six of the area hospitals have been connected to a computerized “bed board” that provides real-time information on who has an appropriate bed available. This saves time in the ER and gets patients to needed treatment more quickly. Otherwise calls need to be made to each individual hospital, which is very time-consuming.

And it’s not uncommon for all the beds to be full. Last July there was an EMTALA complaint against a hospital in Maryland because a patient sat in the ER all weekend, and this hospital said they had no beds to admit the patient to. The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DHMH) investigated the complaint and found that indeed the hospital was full that weekend. The ER’s record indicated that all the hospitals (except the state hospitals) were called that weekend and all indicated their beds were full. So DHMH visited every hospital (about 28, I think) thinking that surely one of them had an empty bed they were hiding. What they discovered was that every single psychiatric bed in the state was full.

Unfortunately, we have no way of determining how often this happens, but we know if happens often enough. A “bed board” like this would be very helpful in quickly finding beds when needed and keeping track of the extent of this problem. Having patients wait in ER for days is unsafe and is even discriminatory. How many people with stroke or uncontrolled diabetes sit in ER for days waiting to find a bed for treatment? I’d like to hear others’ thoughts on how this problem can be addressed.

*This blog post was originally published at Shrink Rap*

Mental Illness And The Tucson Shooting

When reports arrived that accused gunman Jared Lee Loughner had opened fire in Tucson, Arizona on January 7, journalistic first responders linked the incident to the fierceness of political rhetoric in the United States. Upon reflection, some of the discussion has turned to questions about mental illness, guns, and violence.

And plenty of reflection is required, because the connections are not at all simple. To get a sense of just how complicated they are, we invite you to read the lead article in this month’s Harvard Mental Health Letter entitled, “Mental Illness and Violence.” Strangely (for us) it was prepared for publication a month before the tragedy in Tucson. In light of the shooting, we are making the article available to non-subscribers.

I am not surprised at the outrage expressed in the news or at the impulse to blame. A quick scan of the news, however, shows there is not much agreement about whom to blame. In addition to the alleged perpetrator, one can find explicit and implicit criticisms of politicians for playing to our baser instincts; of media figures, various men and women of zeal, for their disingenuous or manipulative partisanship; of the various community bystanders (police, teachers, doctors, family members, neighbors, friends), whom we imagine could have intervened to prevent tragedy.

The political debate flowing from this incident will continue, as will the endless cycle of blame and defensiveness. But I caution all of us — and especially mental health professionals — not to make clinical judgments about Mr. Loughner. Very few people will or should have access to the kind of information that would allow such judgments. From a public health perspective, however, we should make careful judgments about policies that could reduce risk. Read more »

*This blog post was originally published at Harvard Health Blog*

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