Emergency Departments struggling to cope with increase in mental health patients

Emergency departments (EDs) are struggling to cope with an increasing number of mental health patients.

New data reveals one in four patients waited for a hospital bed for more than eight hours, a phenomenon known as 'access block."

"The long waits are really problematic for them," says Dr John Bonning, New Zealand Faculty Chair of the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine. 

"They're not being discriminated against because they've got mental illness, it's just the resource isn't enough to meet demand."

Demand for mental health and addiction services has increased by more than 70 percent in the past decade. 

Last year, more than 170,000 people used hospital services.

Jazz Thornton has fought through her mental illness, and now helps others though Voices of Hope.  But she knows what it's like to get stuck in ED when you're in crisis.

"I've tried to take my life 14 times, and so I've been to ED for that 14 times.  Each time the wait has been around eight hours plus, most of the time you just get discharged afterwards because there's no beds."

She says the long waits just exacerbate feelings of despair.

"You feel like you're burdening all the nurses and the team, waiting to be assessed and it doesn't help your feeling that 'I can't be helped'," says Ms Thornton.

According to an ACEM snapshot survey, mental health patients account for just 3.7 percent of all emergency presentations, but they make up a quarter of those patients who have to wait eight hours or more.

Dr Bonning says it puts a strain on emergency departments and often suicidal patients will just get up and leave.

"Sometimes they're in a treatment space, often we like to have them in a secure space, but emergency services are just not designed to provide this longitudinal care."

Every 24 hours police respond to 90 calls involving a person having a mental health crisis, including suicide attempts, and calls are increasing by nine percent a year.

Until 2014 it was common for mental health assessments to be carried out in police custody, but now police take people suffering with mental health issues to hospital instead.

Dr Bonning says overall presentations at emergency departments are increasing.

"Our volumes around the country in January of this year were simlar to winter of last year, so of course this winter is going to be worse again and it's just overstretching us."

Health Minister David Clark concedes it's a national problem.

"These findings are sadly not surprising. All electorate MPs have heard stories of people with mental health issues struggling to get the help they need from emergency departments," says Dr Clark.

"Addressing this is a priority for me as Minister of Health. DHBs need to ensure that emergency departments are responding appropriately to people with mental health issues and I will be expecting them to report on their progress on waiting times."

The Australasian College for Emergency Medicine is calling for more resources in ED and better resources in the community to prevent mental health patients reaching crisis point in the first place.