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Patient Dumping: How Hospitals Treat the Mentally Ill

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A street sign.How do you expect to be treated when you go to a hospital? You probably expect to receive quality healthcare. You probably expect professionals to assess and treat you and, depending on the circumstance, admit you to the hospital. You probably expect to be treated with care and respect and to have your illness treated until you are well enough to go home.

These are reasonable expectations. After all, hospitals are there to care for you when you’re too ill to care for yourself.

But I hope you’re not a person who hears voices or talks of killing yourself, because then those expectations can go right out the window.

Patient Dumping

Patient dumping is a phenomenon in healthcare where patients are stabilized to the point where they won’t die but then they are dumped, pretty much wherever, just to get them out of the hospital. Sometimes patients are delivered with nothing but hospital gowns to the street where they have no place to live and nothing to eat.

And for people with a mental health condition it can be even worse. Some hospitals have been accused of not even stabilizing patients before sending them on a bus to the next state where they are instructed to “call 9-1-1” so they can be someone else’s problem.

Think that couldn’t happen in the United States? Think again.

The Sacramento Bee has chronicled case after case of patients being bused out of a Nevada psychiatric hospital into every other state in the US. According to a US federal agency about 40 percent of patients at the Nevada hospital were discharged without any arrangements made for their care.

“The majority of those patients were discharged directly to Greyhound buses bound for other states, without documentation of specific instructions about how to find housing or mental health treatment.”

Patient Dumping Violates the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act

Not surprisingly, there are laws put into place to prevent this sort of thing—too bad they don’t work. Too bad patients with a mental illness are seen as second-class citizens. Too bad if you don’t have money for treatment you are treated as expendable.

Why No Care for the Mentally Ill?

It is not surprising to anyone who works in the field that one-third of homeless people have a mental illness and these people often end up in the hospital as many of them are currently untreated. It is also no surprise that mental illnesses can take many days or even weeks to stabilize—all without insurance. This makes them very expensive patients.

But I don’t care.

I don’t particularly care that U.S. hospitals that make millions of dollars have to spend a pittance on people with mental illnesses. It’s this for-profit model that allows so many people to live on the street untreated so why shouldn’t hospitals—who profit from the model—have to pay?

And shipping them off to a different state, bus station, or a homeless shelter? What kind of care is that? How would you feel if you came in for a heart condition and got put on a bus for 18 hours? How would you feel if you came in because of unexplained headaches and got sent away with three days worth of medication and no follow-up? How would you feel if you were treated as a second-class patient just because of the type of illness that you had?

These Patients Could Have Cancer

Why is it I have never heard of a story of a person being shipped out of state and told to call 9-1-1 because they needed cancer treatment? I can tell you why. It’s because of the discrimination people with mental illness face not only from the world at large but also by medical professionals. It’s because many people don’t care if people with a mental illness die because of their illness. Good riddance—they were just a drain on the system anyway.

But it really doesn’t have to be this way. Just like any illness could cripple a person, effective treatment can set him free—to become as productive as anyone else. But people with a mental illness will never get there, and they will lose the productivity that they have, if they are treated like they are someone else’s problem.

Because people with mental illnesses aren’t a problem—they are people. And their care is as important as anyone else’s.

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About the Author

Natasha Tracy is an award-winning writer who specializes in writing about bipolar disorder.

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