On any given day, pediatrician Lindsay Irvin estimates a quarter of her patients need psychiatric help. She sees teens who say they are suicidal, and elementary school children who suffer chest pains stemming from bullying anxiety.
Though she does her best, she doesn't consider herself qualified to treat them at the level they need at her practice in San Antonio. She doesn't have the training, she said, to figure which medications are best suited to treat their various mental health conditions. And she doesn't have time. She's juggling stomach ailments, vaccinations and ear aches.
As a result, she's seen some of her patients wind up in the emergency room or going without care. These experiences evidence the degree of unmet need for mental health treatment. "I see kids' lives destroyed by not getting care," she said.
Now, research abstracts presented Monday by the American College of Emergency Physicians offers insights into how frequently patients with mental health issues land in the emergency room -- often because opportunities to intervene earlier are missed.
The researchers analyzed data compiled by the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey, which tracked mental health visits to the emergency department between 2001 and 2011. The data tracks a national sample of patients who use hospital emergency and outpatient departments.
Compared with patients who have physical illnesses, the researchers found that people with mental health conditions rely more on the emergency department, and are more likely to be admitted when they show up. They tend to stay longer, too. The researchers have not yet described down how the visits broke out by age. But anecdotally, children and older patients -- "the extremes" -- appear particularly affected, said Suzanne Lippert, a clinical assistant professor in emergency medicine at Stanford University, and lead author on the abstracts.
These findings underscore two concerns, Lippert said. They highlight potential consequences when patients can't find good outpatient mental health care, and that, when psychiatric patients arrive in a crisis, there's often no good place for them to continue treatment once the immediate issue has been addressed.
Medical patients can usually be sent home "because we know they'll be evaluated by [their] doctor in one or two days," Lippert said. But psychiatric patients don't always have that option because of gaps in the mental health care system.
Young patients may be affected the most, said Steven Schlozman, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and associate director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital. He was not affiliated with the research.
"It's a numbers game. Unless you live in a large urban area, you're very unlikely to find a child psychiatrist," Schlozman said. The emergency department, then, often is the only realistic venue for care.
Some numbers: About 6 percent of all emergency department patients -- of all ages -- had a psychiatric condition. More than 1 in 5 were admitted, compared with just over 13 percent of medical patients, and about 11 percent required transfer to another facility, compared with 1.4 percent. About 23 percent of mental health patients stayed in emergency care for longer than 6 hours, and about 1.3 percent for more than 24 hours -- compared with 10 percent and half a percent of medical patients.
The most severely ill mental health patients were far more likely to spend extended periods of time in the ER. Bipolar disorder, depression, psychosis and having multiple conditions all tracked with stays longer than 24 hours.
These findings, the researchers write, highlight a "growing crisis."
There is also a national shortage of inpatient psych beds, so patients have to wait longer in the ER, Lippert said. She's seen them stay for over a week.
An online poll of emergency physicians released Oct. 17 offers evidence of how this plays out for young psychiatric patients. Of the 1,700 physicians responding, more than half (57 percent) reported increased wait times and boarding for children with mental health issues.
Plus, psychiatric patients can be harmed by long stays in cramped, overused emergency quarters, said Thomas Chun, an associate professor of emergency medicine and pediatrics at Brown University.
"We are the wrong site for these patients, and they have very important, very special needs. Our crazy, chaotic environment is not a good place for them," said Chun, who was not affiliated with the abstracts.
Meanwhile, the young patients are least likely to get reliable care even after leaving. Whether they need regular follow-up with a psychiatrist, or a transfer to specialized facility, the resources often aren't in place. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry estimates 8,300 such specialists practice in the country, while more than 15 million young patients need services.
"They'll land in a pediatrician or family practice," Irvin said. "I'm not trained to navigate the ins and outs of psychotropic meds," she added, recalling difficulties she recently had finding a specialist who could prescribe the necessary medications and continue working with a suicidal teenage girl, who was one of her patients.
And children in crisis sometimes wait weeks for proper in-patient treatment, Chun said. That's less common in his home state of Rhode Island which, he said, is "fairly resource-rich" in terms of psychiatric care -- but he hears it often from colleagues in New York. Doctors will agree a child needs to be transferred, but no beds are available.
For children, the problem also doesn't fall evenly. The resource squeeze is especially problematic for families with limited means, noted Alfiee Breland-Noble, an associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical Center, who was not involved with the research. Cost, coupled with a stigma toward mental conditions, means low-income families are more likely to let a child's ailment slide, until it reaches a crisis point.
That tracks with another finding: Emergency psychiatric patients were more likely to be uninsured than were physical health ones. About 22 percent of mental health patients lacked coverage, versus 15 percent for physical conditions -- likely, Lippert said, in part because of the particular challenges the uninsured face in finding affordable psychiatry.
In San Antonio, just one visit to a child therapist can cost hundreds of dollars out of pocket, Irvin said. For her patients, the choice can be a week's worth of groceries or seeing the doctor. Often, that means, "a kid will go neglected."
By the time a child gets treatment, she added the mental condition can have produced physical ailments, too. It's more expensive to treat, it's bad medicine, and it's avoidable, she said.
"These kids should never be in the emergency room," she said. "They shouldn't be waiting for 24 hours in a plastic chair."