Commentary: Emergency rooms are not place to treat mental illness

Thank goodness a federal judge blocked, at least for now, more budget cuts that threaten to send more of Sacramento County's mentally ill to emergency rooms.

Local ERs are already overloaded after the county, in money-saving moves last year, closed its mental health crisis stabilization unit and cut the number of beds in half at its inpatient treatment center as well.

In the first three months of 2010, visits at nine local emergency rooms from patients whose main diagnosis was some kind of mental disorder jumped to nearly 4,100, up 28 percent from the same period last year and 55 percent from 2007.

The impact of those numbers has been nothing shy of devastating for patients and ERs alike, as The Bee's Bobby Caina Calvan and Phillip Reese detailed Sunday. They told the story of Anna Davis, who had a 36-hour ordeal – she described it as torture – waiting for treatment in Sutter General's ER when she had a mental health crisis in May.

Emergency rooms are not staffed or equipped to provide psychiatric care. While doctors and nurses are monitoring people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses, they're not able to care for others. That increases wait times for other patients. Many mentally ill people who come into ERs don't have insurance, raising costs for everyone, too.

If any more were needed, the fallout provides more proof that the county's latest cost-cutting proposal – this time for outpatient mental health services – will almost certainly harm patients.

The county had wanted to start, as of Aug. 1, shifting as many as 4,000 patients to new county-run clinics from successful treatment programs run by nonprofits that allow the mentally ill to get the care they need while living and working in the community. But last month, a federal district judge issued a preliminary injunction against the plan, saying it would cause "catastrophic harm" to patients and violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.

To read the complete editorial, visit www.sacbee.com.