The Grumpiest Ginger

When will we take mental illness emergencies seriously?


Gunter Kleist

Her eyes see through your lies

Okay, imagine you have a friend who is seriously sick and could die if they don’t get to the hospital. You rush them to the ER and sit with them while the nurse takes down their information. Your friend is given a hospital gown to change into and the two of you are shown to a tiny room in the ER with a bed, one chair, and blank white walls. The nurse tells you that the doctor will be in, but you might have to wait a while. So you wait. And wait. And wait. A few nurses poke their heads in to see how your friend is doing. You wait some more. A doctor comes in for a minute, but rushes out when his pager beeps. You wait. Somebody comes in and says that your friend can’t stay in this hospital because there aren’t enough beds. They leave. It’s been hours since you got to the hospital and although the sense of urgency has faded slightly, you and your friend both know that they could die if they don’t find somewhere to stay. You and your friend get some sandwiches from the vending machine in the hallway and settle in to watch reality T.V. shows while the hospital searches for somewhere else that has room for your friend.

Now, imagine that your friend was suicidal.

I spent hours in the emergency room with one of my close friends when she needed to be hospitalized for suicidal ideation. Hours for her sitting in strange clothes, in a stark white room with somebody screaming in the room next door and no idea what would happen or where she would be spending the night. The hospital ended up finding a psych ward with a bed for her around 8 p.m. We got there before noon.

She got lucky, too. My mother is a psych nurse and she said that sometimes people have to spend days in the emergency room before a bed opens up on one of the psych units in Vermont. I nearly went stir-crazy after eight hours; I don’t want to imagine spending days there.

As somebody who is trying to deal with my own mental illnesses (and as somebody who has been voluntarily hospitalized before), the whole experience was incredibly disheartening. I wanted to grab somebody and shake them and yell until they realized how serious the situation was, but I knew that none of the hospital staff were to blame. They were doing their best to care for everyone who came to them. The problem is on a state-wide level.

The Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury used to have 54 beds and a large staff to care for and assist the patients there. After Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, the hospital was closed down due to flooding, which meant that many high-acuity patients in need of care were moved elsewhere.

In 2012, state legislature approved a plan to construct a new psychiatric hospital in Berlin. The plan also expanded the psych units at the Brattleboro Retreat and Rutland Regional Medical Center. Two years and $28 million later, the new Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital opened with 25 beds at maximum capacity. Even including the additional beds in Brattleboro and Rutland Regional, there are still ten fewer beds available to mentally ill patients than there were before the State Hospital closed. There have also been staffing issues at the hospital because of at least 59 incidents of violence between patients and staff since the hospital opened on July 1, 2014.

As I type this there are three patients in the Central Vermont Medical Center E.R. who are waiting for beds to open up at the new Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital. They are too acute to be treated in the CVMC psych ward, and they could be waiting in the E.R. for weeks before any beds open up.

I can’t emphasize enough how desperate the situation is becoming. We live in a society that does not take mental illnesses seriously and this is clearly reflected in the way our state cares for mentally ill people seeking help. I can guarantee that if these people were physically ill there would be a media frenzy, and the legislature would be working as hard as possible to figure out a solution.

I think it’s time for Vermont Legislature to stop patting themselves on the backs, stop acting like this hospital is an improvement on the old one, and acknowledge that they still have a lot of work to do. They owe us that much.