Shortage of psychiatric beds creates bottleneck at N.J. screening centers

 The front entrance of Buttonwood Hospital in Burlington County, New Jersey. The facility has been privatized (Will Stith/for NewsWorks)

The front entrance of Buttonwood Hospital in Burlington County, New Jersey. The facility has been privatized (Will Stith/for NewsWorks)

New Jersey mental health advocates say a shortage of beds in psychiatric hospitals is causing long wait times and chaotic conditions in the state’s screening units, where people in crisis are evaluated before being committed.

The screening centers are located in regular hospitals throughout the state, and are operated by mental health providers. However once a person is found to need hospitalization, there’s often no place for them to go.

“Right now we have ten people waiting on beds, and all but two are overflow from last night,” said Christine Kirkbride, vice president of emergency services for Legacy Treatment Services, which runs the screening center in Burlington County. The facility is located at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Willingboro. Kirkbridge says the screening center is not equipped for longer stays. “We’re a crisis center, so we’re not permitted to turn off the light,” she explained. “The consumers are wearing paper scrubs, all of their belongings have been taken from them, they’re sitting in a room under the lights for hours on end, waiting to go somewhere and start treatment.”

The screening center has only six beds, so on the day of our visit, several people had been sitting in the hallway for hours. One man was protesting loudly while being restrained. A pale-looking woman was asking for nicotine patches. Exhausted family members sat on uncomfortable plastic chairs.

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Kirkbride says her staff keeps calling psychiatric hospitals to check if a bed has freed up, but many people end up waiting up to 72 hours. Kirkbride says this also poses a workflow problem for staff who try to meet the needs of waiting patients, while serving new clients coming through the doors.

Advocates say this kind of situation plays out in crisis centers all over the state. “The southern region in New Jersey has lost over 50 beds in secure, locked units,” said Mary Lynn Reynolds heads the Mental Health Association of Southwestern New Jersey. Reynolds says this is because psychiatric hospitals have been closed or privatized, accepting fewer patients. Also, a four-bed screening unit in Camden shut down, which sends more patients to other facilities.

Reynolds says the situation is painful for people in crisis and their families, and it often affects children who are brought in for evaluations. “You can have an adult brought in in shackles by police officers, who is very psychotic, sitting next to your ten-year-old child, it is very unfortunate.”

Officials with the state’s department of Health and Human Services said in a statement that the department has have made efforts to replace psychiatric beds lost due to closure and privatization, and that more people are seeking services due to efforts to reduce stigma.

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