Patients fill ERs due to shortage of mental health services

Patients in need of mental and behavioral health care services are filling Pennsylvania emergency rooms and hospitals have nowhere to send them.

HARRISBURG, Pa. — The pandemic’s toll on mental health is bringing renewed focus to the lack of treatment options. Statewide and beyond there is a mental health crisis.

Patients in need of behavioral health care services are filling Pennsylvania emergency rooms and hospitals have nowhere to send them.

“It is heartbreaking. Folks are staying in the emergency room because there isn’t psychological help,” said Heather Tyler, Vice President of State Legislative Advocacy for the Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania.

Doctors across the state have seen a drastic increase in the number of people needing emergency level services, crisis level services and care after hospitalization.

However, there is a severe shortage of mental health care providers and treatment programs in the Commonwealth. The waiting period to get admitted into a facility has been never-ending for some families.

“The waiting list can be 1,000 people long,” Tyler added. “What’s happening is that as the crisis increases, and it’s the same things that we all are living with—inflation, higher wages, supply chain issues—services are harder to provide. Counties are increasingly stressed and can’t provide community-based supports or in-home based supports or crisis supports.”

FOX43 Reveals that patients are staying in emergency departments for days, sometimes weeks, as doctors frantically search for treatment options. Doctors at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health have had to refer patients to facilities as far as Philadelphia for treatment.

Tyler said one doctor in Pennsylvania tried calling 400 treatment facilities to find the right placement for a young child in need of mental health services.

With no increase in state funding in more than a decade, doctors are watching the state’s mental health care system crumble before their eyes.

“We really need to do a better job as a system of creating more opportunities for individuals with behavioral health needs to receive care at a less restrictive level,” said Tracey Lavallias, Executive Director of Behavioral Health at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health.

In February 2021, 39.8% of Pennsylvania adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression and 25.7% were unable to get needed counseling or therapy, according to data from the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Recent HAP research reveals that 1 in 6 children between the ages of 6 and 17 years old experience a mental health disorder and fewer than 47 percent of adults living with mental illness receive treatment.

Doctors are worried about the dangers people pose to themselves and others if they are in the midst of a crisis and are unable to get the help that they need.

“As part of the illness, people may feel like they don’t want to go on living or may do something to hurt themselves or may be out of control with their behavior and inadvertently hurt someone else,” said Dr. Erika Saunders, who works in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Penn State Health.

Several stakeholders, including hospitals, are calling on lawmakers to increase state funding for county mental health programs by $28 million dollars, with an additional $13 million to county mental health funding to assist emergency departments. 

There is also a push to pass House Bill 1644, which establishes complex care transition teams to help when inpatient, psychiatric residential treatment, or other settings are unable to discharge patients.

“Now is the time for policymakers to invest more in counties and provide them the funding in the mental health line to provide the programs that all Pennsylvania families need,” Tyler said.

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