New York’s Mental Health System Thrashed by Services Lost to Storm
When a young woman in the grip of paranoid delusions threatened a neighbor with a meat cleaver one Saturday last month, the police took her by ambulance to the nearest psychiatric emergency room. Or rather, they took her to Beth Israel Medical Center, the only comprehensive psychiatric E.R. functioning in Lower Manhattan since Hurricane Sandy shrank and strained New York’s mental health resources.
The case was one of 9,548 “emotionally disturbed person” calls that the Police Department answered in November, and one of the 2,848 that resulted in transportation to a hospital, a small increase over a year earlier.
But the woman was discharged within hours, to the shock of the mental health professionals who had called the police. It took four more days, and strong protests from her psychiatrist and caseworkers, to get her admitted for two weeks of inpatient treatment, said Tony Lee, who works for Community Access, a nonprofit agency that provides supportive housing to people with mental illness, managing the Lower East Side apartment building where she lives.
Psychiatric hospital admission is always a judgment call. But in the city, according to hospital records and interviews with psychiatrists and veteran advocates of community care, the odds of securing mental health treatment in a crisis have worsened significantly since the hurricane. The storm’s surge knocked out several of the city’s largest psychiatric hospitals, disrupted outpatient services and flooded scores of coastal nursing homes and “adult homes” where many mentally ill people had found housing of last resort.