Tired of the Wait

ER Doctors Make the Case for Mental Health Reform


Anyone who has endured hours of waiting in an emergency room knows the frustration—and the danger—of not receiving immediate care.

For Americans with psychiatric emergencies, that wait time is disproportionately longer than for other patients, according to a report released by the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) last week. In fact, 3 out of 4 ER doctors said that at least once every shift, they see patients who need psychiatric hospitalization. Yet 83% of emergency departments do not even have a psychiatrist on call.

"Virtually every emergency physician I know can report anecdotally about the surge in psychiatric patients filling their emergency departments waiting for care in the last year. It is an outrage. These patients have needs that are simply not being met," said Rebecca Parker, MD, FACEP, president of ACEP. ACEP polled more than 1,700 ER doctors between Sept. 28 and Oct. 6, 2016.

Other findings include:

  • Nearly 3 out of 4 ER doctors said there were patients waiting for psychiatric beds during their last shift.
  • 29% of doctors said patients have waited more than 2 days in their Emergency Department for an inpatient psychiatric bed.
  • Nearly 1 in 4 ER doctors said they have had patients waiting 48-120 hours for in-patient psychiatric beds.

These numbers are not just unsettling; they are unjust. And they are a horrible symptom of our nation’s mental health crisis. With dwindling mental health resources, Americans in mental health emergencies are suffering and ER doctors are helpless.

People having a mental health crisis can’t wait a minute longer. And neither can Congress. 

Mental health reform legislation in the Senate offers solutions to three key issues highlighted in this new data:

  • Crisis response. Mental Health Reform, S 2680, will strengthen community crisis response services, so people experiencing a psychiatric crisis can get help before their conditions worsen.
  • Psychiatric bed registry. S. 2680 authorizes grants to develop and maintain databases of crisis stabilization, psychiatric inpatient and residential treatment beds, so emergency rooms can get people into a bed sooner.
  • Early intervention. S. 2680 invests in early intervention, so people get the right mental health care at the right time. It requires 5% of state mental health block grant funds to be used to support evidence-based programs that address early serious mental illness, including psychotic disorders.

It’s time for America to get out of the waiting room and into a mental health system that works. Every hour the Senate delays a vote on mental health reform is another hour that a psychiatric patient is left boarded in an ER waiting for care.

Congress has the power to fix this crisis, and it’s up to us to make sure they do. Stop the waiting game and urge the Senate to pass S. 2680.