Our mental health system must be improved

Pennsylvania should be ashamed of its shortage of services for the mentally ill, writes MARCIA H. GREENWALD

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I am enraged with the mental health system in Pennsylvania.

The whole system is in trouble. We need more facilities — facilities that are well staffed and can relieve the burden of overcrowded hospitals.

First, though, we need to take down the wall of stigma. You should never be ashamed to have a mental illness. It’s a disease like any other. Stigma and lack of funding go hand in hand.

I have lived for several years with my own mental illness. I have spent many hours in UPMC Mercy and Western Psychiatric emergency rooms, waiting for a bed in their psych units to open up. This past year, when I have been admitted, I have seen just how thinly stretched are the nursing staff, aides and doctors.

Because Mayview and other state hospitals have been closed, the only facilities available for severely mentally ill patients are the psychiatric hospitals, which are now overwhelmed with patients.

The situation is made worse by the fact that these patients need around-the-clock care and have widely differing needs. Some have drug or alcohol addictions, some are psychotic, many are depressed, some are prepared to commit suicide.

I have waited whole days and whole nights in the overcrowded ERs of Mercy and Western Psych before receiving treatment. The ERs often are packed with patients lying in hallways and small rooms. Security guards are needed 24/​7 to ensure everyone’s safety.

The issues don’t end there. For me, finding a psychiatrist was a nightmare. Freedom of choice is something like a farce in this system.

I saw a psychiatrist for seven years. He did not take insurance; to sit on his couch cost $350. This is a prohibitive or even discriminatory cost for those suffering from mental illness, many of whom are working class. It’s not just my previous doctor; a lot of psychiatrists and psychologists in this area don’t take insurance.

After I decided to leave my psychiatrist, it was very difficult to find a new doctor due to the shortage of psychiatrists in the Pittsburgh area. My new doctor is associated with Western Psych; he’s wonderful. But the problem didn’t end with finding him.

The other day I met with my new psychiatrist. He informed me that his outpatient hours were being scaled back, from five days to three days a week. That is a big cut — not only does it drastically reduce his availability, it also makes me worry. What will be cut next?

Those of us with mental illnesses are in danger of being left out in the cold. My doctor also mentioned that he no longer has a receptionist. It’s not just a matter of waiting until you find a new or better doctor; in this shrinking system, choice is disappearing.

It makes me sick that the state is cutting funds for mental health. Many people can’t afford doctors who do not accept insurance. The doctors who do are hard to find. Even if you find a facility that takes insurance and has doctors and psychologists, you have to go through an intake process that can take a month. So, if you need a new doctor, you have to wait. Waiting for treatment often isn’t an option when mental illness is concerned — lives are at stake.

Pennsylvania politicians need to open their eyes to the emergency situation we’re in! Our state officials need to take the lack of facilities seriously. We need to make funding available to improve these dangerous conditions.

At the same time, everyone needs to be better educated when it comes to mental illness. Those who suffer with mental illness do not walk around with horns coming out of their heads. They are every type of person; most are intelligent, compassionate and loving.

We need to take down the wall of stigma. Stigma makes people afraid of seeking help and stifles a healthy dialogue about the issues surrounding mental illness. The result is a lack of adequate funding and of care for those who need it.

The dark secret is not that mental illness exists, but that as a society we are failing to treat it well.

Pennsylvania can make a difference. Pennsylvania should become a model of care, an example for the rest of the country. But having a conversation about mental illness isn’t enough: We need to act.

Marcia H. Greenwald, a wife, mother of two sons, owner of three dogs and a runner, lives in Squirrel Hill.

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