COVID Is Limiting Access to In-Patient Psychiatric Care

Reporting reveals patients are being discharged early to free up limited space.

Posted Oct 26, 2020

Ben White/Unsplash
Source: Ben White/Unsplash

Amidst this month’s hyper-frenzied news cycle, The Wall Street Journal published a (paywall-protected) story, “A Hidden Cost of COVID: Shrinking Mental-Health Services.” The coverage details how in the wake of the pandemic, our system’s already insufficient in-patient psychiatric care has become more difficult to access as hospitals repurpose beds for COVID patients. In my home state of New York, approximately 400 psychiatric hospital beds remain closed for care.

The result of these closures is that patients with serious mental health conditions are more frequently being discharged early, while less stable, to free up space. This often places more and more burdens on outpatient programs and individual, private mental health practitioners, as well as the potential for legal exposure.

In my mental health care legal practice, we provide counsel to families of loved ones struggling with serious mental illness. We pride ourselves on doing everything we can to help—conducting psychiatric interventions, petitioning the court for mental health warrants, and finding immediate in-patient care during crises. Yet too often, psychiatric hospital beds have been all too scarce. And the situation has the potential to become much worse.

By creating surge capacity for COVID patients at the expense of lucrative elective procedures, hospitals nationwide have been hemorrhaging funds. Sources quoted in The Wall Street Journal article worry that some hospitals will use this moment to permanently close psychiatric units that traditionally lose money.

This cannot happen. Our mental health system is already largely broken due to chronic inattention and underfunding. The people who depend on it cannot survive mass in-patient care closures.

The U.S. is still internalizing the lessons of COVID, but chief among them is the consequences of a status quo that values profits more than people, efficiency more than humanity. We cannot make these same mistakes again.

Individuals who live with mental illness—and the families who care for them—need more help, not less. They cannot be sacrificed to the demands of COVID, and they cannot be forgotten as the pandemic subsides.

It is often said that societies should be judged by how they treat the most vulnerable. I believe this to be true and that the most vulnerable include those with serious mental illness and related mental health concerns. The pandemic has heightened all our stress and vulnerability; the mental health system must respond.