rAn article posted in the Augusta Chronicle newspaper on January 13, 2017 by Bianca Cain Johnson, Staff Writer, has left me no option but to write this blog post today. I would like to quote some parts of the article, then address some of the comments in turn, as they are provocative or distressing to me.
I should say right away that this is my personal mental health musings blog, and that my opinions are my own, in no way reflecting the policies or procedures or opinions of my employer. I should also state that there was very little factual or historical information in this article about this particular case, but for me it just brought up several broad issues of the treatment of mentally ill persons, our approach to violent behavior and other broader issues that I wanted to address.
From the article:
“According to a sheriff’s office incident report, the 31-year-old had been at the hospital for several days, but because of his mental illnesses and history of being violent, the hospital was having trouble finding a mental institution to take him.” (italics mine)
“A doctor re-evaluated him on Tuesday morning and determined he could be released.”
“…the patient stated, “the only way to get attention is to show out”.”
After he had allegedly injured a guard and nursing staff, “the patient was restrained and given medication to calm down, (and) employees heard him comment “this is what I wanted”.
Remember “too big to fail“, as it pertained to banks or motor vehicle manufacturers? Well, in mental health nowadays we run up against admission and placement issues for those patients who are “too ill to treat”. It may be because they have some element of intellectual disability. It may be that they are floridly and actively psychotic. They may be actively suicidal with access to a lethal method and a serious, specific plan. It may be, like the patient in this article, that they have a previous history of violence. For these and other related reasons, what you find is that some facilities among our dwindling number of mental health hospitals now cherry pick the patients that they want to take. If patients are too sick, too acute or too potentially violent towards themselves or others, they are denied admission and treatment, and are often stuck in emergency departments for days or weeks.
Can you imagine the outcry if a patient with chest pain that was too severe was denied admission to a cardiac care unit, or if a patient with a stroke that left him prone to emotional outbursts was denied neurological treatment?
A doctor re-evaluated the patient and made the determination that he was ready to be released. We do not have nearly enough information about that determination to be able to comment on it all, but we can say that we as physicians are notoriously bad at using our (non-existent) crystal balls to predict violent behavior. Of course, there are known risk factors, characteristics, static points of history, and previous episodes of violence that might sway one towards thinking that there was a better than average chance that some violent behavior or acting out was coming, but to be able to predict that with any significant degree of certainty is fraught with problems.
Please see this article on mental illness and violence for more detail about these related issues.
The issue of the patient knowing or learning or figuring out that in a busy emergency department the best way to be heard or to get drugs or to be assessed is to act out is another huge issue. This involves separating out acutely ill patients who act out unwittingly or because of lack of control, versus those persons who know exactly what they are doing and plan to be violent or agitated with a specific goal in mind (to be separated from the general population or to be given injectable medications, for example).
The comments about this article, which I will leave you to read on your own if you wish, were predictable. This issue is politicized, psychiatric patients are called nuts and commenters express nostalgia for the days when they could just be locked up “for a long time”. One commenter stated that the evaluating doctor should have his license pulled immediately. In my opinion, none of these kinds of comments is helpful.
What do I see going on here as a medical director for a mental health center, and even more so as a telepsychiatrist who sees patients in over two dozen South Carolina emergency departments? What did this particular case make me think about?
First of all, we know that deinstitutionalization was a real thing. Hospitals were closed, patients were discharged to their families, to supervised living situations, or to the streets, and the local mental health centers were supposed to pick up the slack and treat them as outpatients, all in the name of streamlining care and saving money. When I started medical school thirty eight years ago and did my very first psychiatric rotations as a junior and senior student, state hospitals, VA hospitals and mental health nursing homes were still very full of patients who were too ill to function well in society. Many were there for long term stays of weeks, months or even years.
Gradually over my career I have seen many inpatient facilities cut back and close beds and finally close their doors entirely. The ones that survive are much smaller, treat patients for much short length of stays, and are run via much more stringent business models than ever before.
Many patients now get their medical care and most of the psychiatric care in an emergency department, not from their own personal doctor. Once admitted there for evaluation, it can sometimes be a very difficult and complicated ballet to assess the patient for his primary illnesses or presenting problems, available resources, need for inpatient versus outpatient treatment, payor sources and requirements, and family involvement. Add to that the hospital administration’s take on treatment, as well as pressure from ED doctors to get patients in and out as rapidly as possible, and it becomes somewhat overwhelming.
In those past years, patients who were truly psychotic or actively suicidal or a danger to others could simply be committed to the state hospital and held there as long as necessary to achieve remission, or as close to it as possible. This is not nearly as easy or smooth a process now as it once was.
As I mentioned above, we do not have crystal balls, but we do have fairly detailed screening procedures for harm to self or others, for example. We can assess, apply evidence based guidelines, offer the best recommendations we can based on these parameters, and decide if a patient must held or can be released. Recommending and treating based on numbers alone, administration goals, or by algorithm rarely work well.
If a patient is acting out of his own volition, is cognitively processing things appropriately, is not overtly psychotic or in withdrawal from substances, and he still destroys property or intentionally hurts others on the staff or other patients, then he should be charged for these actions accordingly and would perhaps be better served in the county jail than the emergency department.
I would welcome stories of your own experiences in this area, your opinions and ideas for how to make these tense situations more rewarding and beneficial for both staff and patients.