Photo by Michael Jin & Photo by Camilo Jimenez on Unsplash
Recently, when we were still permitted to congregate socially, I was at a Friday night service in my synagogue when a young woman in the back row emitted a frightening scream, fell, and began convulsing. During her seizure, she hurt herself by falling and hitting her head (danger to self) and broke a chair nearby when she fell on it (property damage). Of course, paramedics were called who attended to her and eventually transported her to a hospital, whereupon I lost contact with this particular young woman and her continued treatment. At no point were the police involved with this manifestation of symptoms of an otherwise presumably well-controlled person with epilepsy. Being an emergency physician myself, I can only tell you that my experience with people with seizure disorders being brought to the emergency room is that they are never subsequently taken to jail. The options are either hospitalization or, more frequently, discharged home on appropriate medications with appropriate follow up.
In another hypothetical scenario, a “brittle diabetic,” usually well-controlled on his insulin, passes out while driving and knocks over a Postal box when he runs into it with his car (a federal crime!). Police and paramedics show up; the patient is taken to an emergency room where it is ascertained that he indeed has diabetes and had become hypoglycemic. The patient is either admitted to the hospital or sent home on appropriate medications with appropriate follow-up.
In neither of these cases detailed above, were the patients assumed to be criminals. People exhibiting symptoms from a chronic disease are treated appropriately for their symptoms. Their underlying illness and hospitalization, if needed, are not a problem; there are plenty of inpatient beds for them.
Let’s contrast this with what might have happened if this was a person with serious mental illness attending the same Sabbath service and became symptomatic, started flailing around, and did some property damage as this woman did. Police and/or paramedics would have been called. The patient may or may not have been taken to an emergency room and may or may not have gone to jail because society draws a fine line (not so fine) between apparent “medical” conditions and “psychiatric” conditions. Unfortunately, in a behavioral health crisis, when people become symptomatic because of their underlying disease, the behaviors related to their disease can suddenly be considered a crime. Also, if it was adjudged that this patient needed further treatment on an inpatient basis, they would have found this to be nearly impossible as there is an extremely limited number of inpatient psychiatric beds in the state of Arizona.
Currently, experts recommend approximately one psychiatric inpatient bed for every 250,000 people. In Maricopa County alone, there are about 4 1/2 million people; this equates to an inpatient psychiatric capacity that should exist of around 1,800 inpatient beds. At present, in Maricopa County, there are just 55 beds available in the public system for long-term psychiatric treatment. The inadequate number of limited long-term inpatient psychiatric beds is a figure so egregiously deficient that the reader might well be shocked that this is the truth; shamefully, it is.
We need to correct this appalling lack of inpatient psychiatric therapy currently available for the Seriously Mentally Ill.
Charles Goldstein, MD
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