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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Lack of psychiatric inpatient care leave ailing impatient

    Austin “Gus” Deeds, a 24-year-old, stabbed his senator father and then shot himself on Nov. 19 — the day after he had been turned away from a hospital after a psychiatric evaluation due to a lack of beds.

    Deeds and his family aren’t the only ones who have suffered from America’s inadequate system of psychiatric care.

    Every bed is one space for a person to get the help they need. From 1960 to 2010, over the course of 50 years, hospitals have lost a little fewer than 500,000 beds for psychiatric patients due to losses in funding.

    Our age group and demographic — college students — have the highest prevalence of mental illness. One in four people between 18 and 24 have a mental illness, and over a quarter of college students have either seen professional help for or been diagnosed with a mental illness sometime in the last year.

    Just under 75 percent of students with a mental illness have had a personal emergency on their college campus.

    Yet, Arizona has only 4.1 beds per every 100,000 people. According to Dr. Ole Thienhaus, head of the UA’s department of psychiatry, the University of Arizona Medical Center currently has 66 inpatient psychiatric beds used to house at-risk patients.

    “These are all located at our South Campus location,” Thienhaus said. “We do not have any beds at our main campus medical center.”

    So where are all of the young people who need psychiatric care going after they have been turned away from hospitals?

    “A lot of them end up roaming the streets, homeless, which can worsen their condition,” said Jennifer Hurd, a senior studying psychology and public health.

    Some do turn to the streets. Some, like Deeds, end up committing suicide. But many end up in jail. Prisons have become the new psychiatric hospitals: Approximately 24 percent of state prisoners have a mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

    But prisons get us nowhere in our quest to help the sick. The mentally ill need institutions tailored to help them, not cells where they can be stuck so we can pretend there isn’t a larger problem.

    Police officers often detain the mentally ill for minor crimes just to get them off of the street and into those cells. Four out of five arrests of the mentally ill are for nonviolent crimes, such as trespassing or disorderly conduct.

    There are also “mercy bookings,” which are essentially arrests in order to get severely affected people off of the streets to prevent their victimization. Many of the ill have found that jail is the only place they can find asylum, due to a lack of resources elsewhere.

    More than one in five prisons do not have any psychiatric care available at all, and most jails that do only provide training for their corrections officers that lasts about three hours in total.

    This ineffectual treatment is reflected in what happens to patients after they are released. Mentally ill prisoners have higher rates of homelessness and substance abuse than other released prisoners. They are also often quickly rearrested and churned through the same cycle.

    Hospitals, on the other hand, can do the opposite of what a jail does: Treat and rehabilitate, instead of just house. Thienhaus said that at the UAMC, successful discharge is the staff’s number one priority.

    “There are daily reviews of patients’ progress, and especially how they achieve waypoints established in the treatment plan,” Thienhaus said.

    But inpatient psychiatric care like this is underfunded. The U.S. spends approximately $113 billion per year on mental health treatment, but only 19 percent of that money goes to inpatient treatment. Most of the budget is spent on outpatient treatment and prescription medications.

    Thienhaus believes that inpatient care might not need a budget increase if Tucson had more resources for the community to help the mentally ill before they become dangerous to themselves or others. Recently, Tucson has created a crisis prevention center, which allows patients to calm down and connect with places that can help them.

    Through initiatives like these, Tucson is an example of how our country is slowly taking more steps to help the mentally ill. Over the last few years, the Affordable Care Act has created more mandates for mental health, such as requiring insurance companies to include treatment in their packages. The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Act of 2008 requires insurance companies not to let money stand between a person and their care.

    Hopefully, hospitals will soon get funding to include more beds and allow them to stop turning people away. Our generally negative attitudes about people with mental illnesses can change as well. Rather than look at the mentally ill as if they are a nuisance, we can instead work to relieve their suffering.

    Maura Higgs is a neuroscience and cognitive science sophomore. Follow her @maurahiggs.

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