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January 07. 2013 11:05PM

Mentally ill filling up New Hampshire's emergency rooms

MANCHESTER - A three-day wait at the emergency room; a waiting list of 30 people; a son growing more agitated. That's what an area woman experienced when she took her son to a hospital in the throes of a mental health crisis last month.

Cooped up in the Elliot Hospital emergency room for three days, the 20-year-old son became unaware of his surroundings and pushed away his parents, who feared suicide.

Not until his mother made a frantic trip to the New Hampshire Hospital to speak to the director did her son finally get admitted.

"It felt like forever," said the woman, a high-school history teacher, who asked to be identified by her middle name, Ruth. "It was torture to watch your child degrade into a crisis mode and you can't do anything about it."

Ruth contacted the New Hampshire Union Leader Monday at the behest of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. On Monday, the Alliance said hospital emergency rooms have become overwhelmed with the fallout from a failed mental health delivery system that has too few in-patient beds and not enough community-based care.

"We are in a crisis. The time to take action is overdue," said Dr. John D. Seidner, an emergency room physician at Manchester's Elliot Hospital and the president of the New Hampshire chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians.

He said emergency room staff can evaluate and stabilize mentally ill patients but can't deliver long-term inpatient care.

Last Wednesday, 12 of the 27 emergency room beds at Elliot Hospital were occupied by psychiatric patients, stranding other patients in the waiting room who were complaining of chest and stomach pain, head injuries and broken bones, he said.

"These rooms are designed to treat people suffering from heart attacks, not hallucinations," said Dr. Jeffrey Fetter, president of the New Hampshire Psychiatric Society.

Ruth said her son has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder with psychotic features. Side effects prevent him from taking some of the most widely used psychiatric medicine.

He is resentful about the fact he has to live at home, but he attends college on a part-time basis. She said he sees a psychiatrist monthly and a case worker/therapist biweekly. His crisis started in mid-December.

His mother called his case worker, who thought suicide was possible; Ruth took him to the Elliot Dec. 17.

She and her husband stayed with him for three days in an 8-by-10-foot room, lined by three walls and a privacy curtain. An emergency room worker was outside the enclosure full-time. Her son was allowed out only to go to the bathroom, but managed to wander away on occasion.

Had her son suffered a heart attack, he would get treatment immediately, she said.

"Because it's mental health, there's no room at the inn," Ruth said. "It's just wrong."

mhayward@unionleader.com


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