When people checked into the Palmetto Health Richland emergency department with behavioral or mental health issues in the past, they ended up sharing a large room with three others such patients. If they were lucky.
Their own family members couldn’t come to their cubby-hole sections because they would be violating the privacy rights of the other patients in the larger room. It was a lousy situation.
“Was” is the key word, with the opening of the new Joyce Martin Hill Emergency Mental Health Center at Palmetto Health. The new center, unveiled Wednesday, has 10 individual patient rooms, two special consult rooms, a bathroom with shower and offices for the psychiatric staff.
“People with mental illness need to be treated the same as those with other illnesses,” said Dr. James H. Scully, retired CEO and medical director of the American Psychiatric Association. He called the Palmetto Health effort “really important and a model for the rest of the country.”
The facility was the dream of local philanthropist Joyce Martin Hill, who put up $800,000 to get the effort started and challenged the Palmetto Health Foundation to match her donation. She worked with the foundation to help them raise their portion. Hill is a breast cancer survivor, and she gave $1.2 million in 2001 to help pay for the Breast Center at Palmetto Health, which also is named for her.
“Mental health issues are hidden too often,” Hill said. “I think its important that we address it and not ignore it any more.”
The improvements began in 2011 with the hiring of Dr. Nikki Campbell as the first staff psychiatrist devoted entirely to the emergency department. Since then, three more psychiatrists have joined the emergency team, allowing coverage 16 hours a day, seven days a week.
But their cramped work environment made it difficult to treat patients well. When the main psychiatric room was full, patients would be put into standard emergency bays or left on stretchers in the crowded emergency department hallways. Nobody liked the situation.
At the ceremony Wednesday, Bonnie Stanton told her family’s harrowing tale. Her daughter-in-law was admitted to the emergency room several months ago in a confused state. She had no history of mental health problems or of substance abuse. A Brazilian, she was relatively new to the United States and had no experience with American medical care.
Because of the privacy concerns in the cramped psychiatric emergency room, Stanton’s son wasn’t allowed to visit his wife from when she was admitted on a Friday afternoon until the following Monday.
“He did not sleep for three days,” Stanton said. “It was a horrible experience I wouldn’t wish on anybody.”
Palmetto Health used the money raised by Hill and the foundation to rearrange the emergency department. Staff offices were moved and consolidated, making room for the new behavioral health unit next to the existing emergency department. There’s even a separate control desk for the mental health emergency unit.
The 10 rooms still won’t be enough to handle the need at all times. Campbell said there often are points within a day when there are up to 15 mental health emergency patients. But the staff works as quickly as possible to get those patients help from local mental health agencies and move them out of emergency status.
The number of emergency patients with mental health issues, including addiction, has risen in recent years. A study recently featured by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the percent of emergency patients at North Carolina hospitals with mental health issues rose from 8.3 percent in 2008 to 9.3 percent in 2010.
Mental health advocates say hospitals nationwide need to devote more resources to helping this growing segment of their emergency patients.
Hill noted that the first time she visited Campbell, the sign outside the doctor’s small office read, “Hazardous Waste Only.” That slight simply built Hill’s resolve to get the new center built.
“Mental health should not take a back seat,” Hill said.