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How Psychiatrists Approach Wrist-Cutting Cries For Help

When Roy and I were on Talk of the Nation this past week, a called phoned in to ask about her sister. The question was about care in the Emergency Room/Department, so it was a perfect Roy question and he fielded it. I’ve been playing with it since, and wanted to talk more about this particular scenario, because the scenario was very common, and the question was more complicated than it seems.

From the transcript of the show:

ANN (Caller): Hi, thank you very much. I would like to ask Dr. Roy (oh, I gave him his blog name here) a question: My sister was admitted to emergency when she cut her wrists, and the doctor on call pulled me aside and said, do you think she was trying to kill herself?

And I said – because my sister is very intelligent – I said, if my sister really wanted to kill herself, she would have done it. I think she’s asking for help.

And so he said – and so he had her see the psychiatrist who was on call, or on duty. And she spoke with him for a while. And he sent her home, saying: Well, if you need me, I’m here.

What I would like to ask Dr. Roy is, what protocol was going on there? Why did they allow that to happen? And what would you change, if you could?

Roy did a great job touching on issues of voluntary versus involuntary hospitalization and the importance of hooking someone who is looking for help in to outpatient care.

If this were more of a two-way conversation, I’d want to ask more questions. What did the caller think should have happened? Was the sister given a referral for outpatient care? Was she asked if she wanted one? Was she already in treatment? My sense –and I could easily be wrong– was that the caller thought the patient should be admitted to the hospital. She was desperate and ready now for help. The doctor asked the sister if she thought the patient wanted to commit suicide; hopefully the patient was asked that as well.

So if the caller thought her sister should have been hospitalized, there are things about the ‘system’ she isn’t aware of. Hospital inpatient units are a place that people go to be kept safe. In many ways, they are a holding place and the goals there do not include treatment back to wellness, but treatment back to safety. It’s a very low bar, and it ends up that only those who are imminently dangerous, or so disorganized as to be at risk, get admitted from an ER. There are some exceptions: if the ER doc doesn’t believe a patient who says he’s not suicidal/homicidal, he may err on the side of safety and admit the patient, or if the patient’s behavior seems unpredictable, he may get admitted. At a community hospital, a typical length of stay is only a few days, very little actual psychotherapy occurs in the hospital, and while medications may be started, people are generally discharged before those medications can take effect or even be brought to steady-state levels. Gone are the days of long-term hospitalizations. And because of the acuity of illness in those people who are admitted to the hospital, psychiatric inpatient units are often not very restful places. If you want peace and quiet, you’re better off in a hotel where you can order room service, have a massage, sleep peacefully, and it costs a whole lot less.

Sometimes people are admitted to specialty units where more intensive treatment does take place which may take longer and may have a goal that goes beyond imminent safety. There are special mood disorder units, eating disorder services, pain units, trauma disorder services, or inpatient stays for ECT…but one doesn’t typically get admitted to these from the Emergency Room and often issues of payment limit who can be admitted and for how long. Of course, there is Clink’s favorite place, The Retreat, where you can get help in a very pleasant environment, and I imagine they would be happy to have the sister of the caller from the radio, but that is self-pay.

“Getting help” usually means going to an outpatient therapist/psychiatrist and it’s not something that necessarily gets started while the moment is ripe. If there is a clinic associated with the hospital, they may have emergency slots for the ER to offer fast appointments, but other times, it can take many weeks to get a first appointment. Private practice varies a good deal– I know shrinks who can get you in within the week, and others with a 6 week wait, and many who are simply too booked to take new patients.

I didn’t write these rules, I’m just letting you know what they are. How do you think it should all work?

*This blog post was originally published at Shrink Rap*

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