Responding to our broken mental healthcare system

by Joanne Kelly

Our mental healthcare system is badly broken.

On Wednesday, I spent 12 hours in the emergency room, waiting with my son for a psychiatric evaluation.

Jay (not his real name) was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder years ago, although I understand in the DSM 5 that is no longer a separate diagnosis. It’s just lumped under “schizophrenia.” He hears voices pretty much all the time – although he calls them “outside influences” rather than voices – and he is convinced it is my husband, Alan, doing the influencing.  It is Alan shrugging his shoulders for him, Alan telling him to smoke that cigarette (which I assure you will only happen when hell freezes over), Alan wiping the smile off his face.

Usually, Jay’s psychotropic medications quiet his voices to a volume he can tolerate. But lately, Jay has been beset with financial worries. His Section 8 housing allowance went down and his rent went up, so he can no longer make ends meet. He ran out of money for food and cigarettes on the 20th of the month. He tried going to one of the “church feeds” for supper, but his table mate’s body odor was so foul he couldn’t eat.  So he stopped eating. And smoking – cold turkey.

The voices quickly ratcheted up to an intolerable level. Hence the trip to the emergency room.

We had been waiting in the emergency room for 9 hours when we learned there were others in the emergency room who had been waiting twice as long, and no matter the results of the eval, he would not be admitted because there was not a single psych bed available in all of Colorado.

Can you image showing up at the emergency room with chest pain and waiting 12 hours to be evaluated? And being told 9 hours into your wait that it didn’t matter what the tests showed, you wouldn’t be admitted to the hospital because there were no beds available anywhere?

It’s not OK for a heart patient to be treated this way nor is it OK for someone with a brain disorder (another name for mental illness) to be treated this way.

I do not fault our local hospital. My son was treated with compassion and kindness by almost everyone we dealt with, and the long wait was not their fault. I also do not fault our local mental health center, whose personnel perform the evaluations at the hospital emergency room. They had just one evaluator on duty per shift, because that’s all the staff they can squeeze out of their badly underfunded budget. The mental health center staff is forced to make difficult decisions every day about how to allocate tightly stretched resources.

So whose fault is it? If we continue to allow our state legislatures to underfund community mental health care, the fault lies squarely on our own shoulders.

I urge you to get involved – not for my son’s sake, but for all of our sakes. According to the National Institute on Mental Health, approximately 1 in 4 people experience a mental illness each year. So even if you are not affected yourself this year, it is likely that a family member, a close friend or the person next to you in the pew on Sunday morning is.

Here’s what Rosalynn Carter says:

“People with mental problems are our neighbors. They are members of our congregations, members of our families; they are everywhere in this country. If we ignore their cries for help, we will be continuing to participate in the anguish from which those cries for help come. A problem of this magnitude will not go away. Because it will not go away, and because of our spiritual commitments, we are compelled to take action.”

What is your congregation doing to support those with mental illness and advocate for adequate funding to meet their needs? What are you doing as an individual?

Joanne Kelly

Cofounder, Interfaith Network on Mental Illness

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the submitter. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the board of directors or members of the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness.