(Note: I wrote this piece on June 15th and submitted it to The New York Times, hoping they would publish it on their OpEd page. That didn't happen, so I'm posting it here in its original form. It also appears on The Huffington Post's blog site under the title "Getting Mental Health Care Shouldn't Be This Difficult.")
Broken Leg? No Problem. Broken Brain? That's Another Story
As the parents of an adult son who has struggled mightily with severe depression and addiction issues since he was a teenager, my wife and I have been through more health care and insurance ordeals in the last ten years than we can count. Over that decade, one might assume that some major improvements would've been made to "the system." Unfortunately, even though some things may be slightly better today, the system is still broken. And it's maddening.
Our older son is 26 years old and recently experienced a devastating break-up with his girlfriend, whom he'd been living with for a couple of years. He had already been fighting an almost debilitating bout of depression for several months, so the change in his relationship status really hit him hard and sent him spiraling downward to to a new low. My wife and I were so concerned with his well-being that we took him to the emergency room of a major hospital in Detroit to try and get him some help. But all we got was frustration.
If you want to find out how screwed up the mental health care system in this country is, try spending thirteen hours in the ER with someone who needs help but doesn't want to be there. Someone you love with all your heart, who is telling you he has lost his only reason to live. Someone you keep telling, "It’s going to be okay," but whose only answer is, "I can't do this." Trust me: It'll rip your heart out.
Five hours into our ER stay, we were still waiting to see the one and only social worker on duty and were told that there were three people ahead of us. Three hours later, we were told the exact same thing. It wasn't until four hours after that that we actually got to meet with the social worker. A twelve-hour wait for a person in a desperate emotional state to see a social worker at a major hospital in a big city. Does that make any sense at all? (Here's an idea: How about having two social workers on duty? Would that cut into the hospital's profits all that much?)
The social worker interviewed our son and wanted to have him admitted to the hospital. Our son was against that idea, though, because he has had several negative experiences in psychiatric hospitals over the years. (I don't think the twelve-hour wait helped much either.) The next option was to have our son admitted against his will, but the social worker said that doing that probably wouldn’t work out very well. My wife and I agreed with her.
That brought us to option number three, which was a partial hospitalization program at another local hospital. With that program, our son would go to treatment and therapy during the day, then come home at night. It was a great program, we were told, and it seemed like the perfect compromise. Best of all, our son agreed to do it. Finally, after thirteen hours, a glimmer of hope.
The next morning, my wife called the hospital to get our son registered for the program. When she hung up the phone and came downstairs, she had a sad look on her face. "What’s wrong?" I asked. Fighting back tears, she replied, "They don’t have any openings until five weeks from now."
Yes, the mental health aspect of our health care system is barely functional and in need of massive repair. No matter how hard you try, getting someone the help they need is like an Olympic event. If you have a broken leg, you go to the hospital, get seen relatively quickly, get the help you need, and are on your way. But if you have a broken brain, it seems like the system sets you up to fail. And for someone who is battling mental health issues, that's a recipe for disaster.
Postscript: It's now eight days after our trip to the ER and we're still struggling. We've tried a couple of things that weren't a good fit. So we'll keep looking. Getting mental health care shouldn't be this difficult.
"There is no point treating a depressed person as though she were just feeling sad, saying, 'There now, hang on, you'll get over it.' Sadness is more or less like a head cold--with patience, it passes. Depression is like cancer." --Barbara Kingsolver in The Bean Trees