In the U.S, increased diagnoses of mental health issues and insufficient treatment places have resulted in many people turning to emergency departments for help. Unfortunately, this trend causes increased boarding times, ED overcrowding, and challenges for ED staff.

The increase in youth suffering from mental health issues is evident in a CDC survey. Emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts by youth aged 12 to 17 increased by 39 percent from February through March 2021, compared with the same time in the same period in 2019.

On April 27, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.V., introduced the Improving Mental Health Access from the Emergency Department Act (S. 1346). Supporting mental health treatment, decreasing boarding time, and addressing overcrowding are all priority issues for the Emergency Nurses Association. A similar bill is awaiting introduction in the House of Representatives.

“Many of the challenges facing emergency departments today can be directly linked to the need to improve care for behavioral health patients,” says ENA President Terry Foster, MSN, RN, CEN, CPEN, CCRN, TCRN, FAEN. “A lack of resources and treatment options often leaves individuals struggling with their mental health in the ED for extended periods, which leads to overcrowding and, frequently, acts of violence against health care workers.”

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ENA President Terry Foster, MSN, RN, CEN, CPEN, CCRN, TCRN, FAEN

ENA research has shown the average ED stay for mental health patients is 18 hours compared to four hours for all other types of patients.

This proposed legislation would provide resources for EDs through a competitive grant program, allowing them to adopt more collaborative and connected care models to connect behavioral health patients with appropriate resources in their communities. It also aims to increase access to inpatient beds and alternative care settings, which will help alleviate boarding in emergency departments. Recognizing that all EDs are unique, this program would allow each ED to design solutions that will work best for them.

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“The passage of this legislation could go a long way in reducing that wait time and providing a significant opportunity to establish a more collaborative approach to comprehensive mental health treatment options,” Foster says.

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