After the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, there was a lot of talk about our broken mental health system. As a mental health counselor, I have worked in the mental health system since 2006 and could go on and on about why I think the mental health system fails many of those who need it the most.
It basically boils down to politics and money.
When I worked at the psychiatric hospital, I would see severely mentally ill people come in, but because they had no insurance, they were generally released back onto the streets within 24 hours without any medication or follow up appointments. At the same time, patients with insurance, regardless of the severity of their mental state at the time, were almost always hospitalized for at least 72 hours and released with medication, prescriptions, and/or follow up appointments.
Needless to say, the patients without insurance returned on a regular basis, to the point that I got to know them all pretty personally and could even predict when they would return. These clients were considered indigent clients or “regulars” as some of the hospital staff would call them.
They never got better, not necessarily because they didn’t want to, but many of them never really got the chance to get better.
Sure, many of them were homeless, some of them drug and alcohol abusers, and some even used the hospital like a hotel knowing that if they said the right words they would at least have a place to stay for several hours, but the large majority of them never really got the chance to get the help they needed because they didn’t have the money or insurance.
So, they would be back out on the street, most harmless, some committing petty crimes and a few were pretty scary as far as what they were capable of doing to an innocent person unaware that this person was in the midst of a psychological breakdown.
It was sad and frustrating which is one reason I left the psychiatric hospital and started working with juveniles, but even now I see how the system fails many people.
Now things are much more billing and money driven. They don’t care much about clients, giving quality therapy, making sure that counselors are well trained and given opportunities to stay well-trained and updated. All they care about is how many clients you can see and bill for in a day.
We are given three times as many clients as we can properly manage and give quality therapy to, but agencies don’t care about that because they are under pressure and in competition with other agencies and what’s called a “Managing Entity” that holds all the funds given to mental health and substance abuse facilities and can decide which facilities get and lose funding.
It’s frustrating and sometimes makes me want to quit my job because I can’t effectively do my job to the standard I feel like I’m obligated to by my own ethics and the ethics of the American Counseling Association.
On top of all that, my frustrations with the mental health system include a time when I had to have a young woman hospitalized after she had growing paranoia, anxiety and delusions that she was being controlled by other people who were raping her and turning her into a dog. She even crawled around on all fours and urinated on her mom’s carpet.
She was released from the hospital without any diagnosis and was only given a prescription for anxiety. This did not stop or even decrease her paranoia and delusions and I had to have her hospitalized again when her paranoia was so bad she started having thoughts of killing herself.
The reason I had her sent to the mental hospital the first time was because they had the resources and staff needed to truly help her better than I did working out of a school based program. Yet, they basically put a patch on a wound and sent her on her way.
In another situation I had a client stab himself in the neck during an argument with his girlfriend. Sure, this was impulsive and maybe he didn’t need to be hospitalized for an extended amount of time or given medication, but he didn’t even spend the night in the mental hospital before they released him without a diagnoses or any follow up.
If this same guy decides next time to stab his girlfriend in the neck, she may try to sue the hospital, or if she dies, her family may want to try to sue the hospital and everyone will be talking about how the mental health system failed her.
This reminds me of another aspect of working in the mental health hospital.
Almost twice weekly we would get handfuls of inmates being released from jail, inmates the jail didn’t feel were mentally stable enough to be released back onto the streets. Most of these inmates didn’t have any insurance so we would take them in and release them in the morning.
How scary and sad is that? The jail didn’t feel safe letting this inmates free to roam the streets, but they couldn’t legal hold them beyond their sentences, so they entrusted the psychiatric hospital to stabilize these inmates before releasing them, and all we did the majority of the time was give them a place to sleep and then let them out the next day.
In defense of the psychiatric hospital, a lot of it came down to funding and unfortunately, not much funding is given for those without insurance. We would have what were called indigent beds, beds paid for by the state for those without insurance, but there weren’t many and they didn’t pay as much as insurance beds did.
I believe most of the people who work in the mental health field, those who haven’t been tainted or sold their soul so that they can become program managers, directors and supervisors who are more concerned about funding and stats than actually quality of care, really do love and care so much for those who suffer from a mental illness that we go far and beyond what is expected of us and definitely far and beyond what we are paid to do.
Places I’ve worked typically don’t pay their therapists/counselors what they deserve. Those who are licensed could make more as program directors or supervisors who don’t see clients. Positions that once required masters degrees are starting to only require bachelors degrees so that agencies can lower the salary, which usually lowers the education, experience and dedication of those being hired for a lesser salary.
Quality of patient care is sure to suffer.
The mental health system is so broken and so politically and funding driven, that if things don’t change drastically and soon, I can only see much darker days ahead for all of us.