Psychiatric emergency room holding cells

Did you know that patients with psychiatric emergencies have to wait the longest to receive care? At my local hospital the average daily census in the “psych ER” is 60 patients. That is, 60 patients a day are triaged and waiting for a bed to become available so they can get treatment. Not just a bed on the psychiatric unit at that particular hospital — I’m talking about a bed on a psychiatric inpatient unit anywhere in the western part of the state. Patients can wait for days, weeks, and even months to be transferred out of the ER and into a hospital for treatment by psychiatric medical professionals.

One particular ER at a large hospital in the southeast has psychiatric patients wait for days in small, dark rooms, 4-6 per “pod”, with nothing to do except look at old magazines or DVDs. There are no windows, and there are no clocks. The only way to mark the passing of time is during shift change and by what meal is being served. Some of the pods don’t have beds — just recliners. There is no counseling or therapy. Some patients are allowed to journal in composition books, the closest form of treatment until they are admitted. Medication is adjusted by staff covering the ER; it’s often cursory at best and is just a temporary measure. But the staff are kind and caring and patients try to support one another. Everyone is trying to make the best of an awful situation.

So the next time you find yourself in the ER, whether it’s for yourself or a friend, count your lucky stars if it’s not for mental health reasons. As you wait to be treated for your medical emergency, try not to complain that it’s been 3 hours and you’re getting uncomfortable on your hard gurney, and you’re cold and need another blanket from the warmer.

person holding hour glass

Photo by samer daboul on


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