Across the nation there have been problems with a shortage of beds in psychiatric wards to accommodate patients in crisis, and in Washington state I have come face to face with this issue firsthand. It is bad enough when psychiatrist’s schedules are booked out six weeks in advance or more (making it practically impossible for someone in a crisis situation to see someone immediately), but when these situations erupt into one requiring an involuntary hospitalization, a lack of available beds has meant keeping some of the most desperate psychiatric patients in ER or regular hospital beds in the meantime.
I guess I can see where this kind of action is coming from, having a lack of beds in psychiatric hospitals has meant having an overflow… and where can these people go? Without a proper budget in the state, it seems the next best thing would be to keep these patients in the hospital until they can receive care, right?
I first heard about this issue when other hospital patients (and some employees) began expressing concern about having involuntary patients who aren’t in the proper secure setting they need, and without the staff having the proper training to deal with potentially dangerous situations.
Oddly enough, that wasn’t the issue that brought this problem up to the state Supreme Court. The lawsuit was actually filed by one of the patients who had been involuntarily committed but temporarily held at a local hospital without treatment.
Normally (at least in Washington state) the policy is that anyone who is admitted into a psychiatric inpatient setting (voluntary or involuntary) must begin receiving treatment by a licensed professional within 24 hours of intake.
I know how frustrating it can be to be admitted and have to wait 23 3/4 hours before seeing a psychiatrist (on top of waiting nearly 24 hours to be admitted) while in a crisis situation, but apparently there have been several cases where people have been held involuntarily (even strapped into a bed) for days without any kind of treatment due to lack of qualified staff.
Frankly, that sounds like a nightmare to me, and that is why I am pleased to say that the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that holding patients while withholding treatment is not only inhumane but also unlawful.
The ruling quoted the Involuntary Treatment Act;
“Each person involuntarily detained or committed pursuant to (the Act) shall have the right to adequate care and individualized treatment.”
While this feels like a big step in supporting and protecting the rights of the mentally ill in Washington State, the next big issue will be trying to find a solution to the issue of bed shortages.
You can find more about this trial at the Seattle Times blog The Today File here.