Psychiatrist Shortage Causing Suffering, Risk of Jail and Suicide in Central Pennsylvania

Depression is on the rise. So is suicide, particularly among young people and military veterans. And Pennsylvania recently concluded that addressing mental health needs is the best defense against school shootings.

Yet, because of a shortage of psychiatrists, people commonly wait six months for an appointment in central Pennsylvania. That means some people badly in need of help continue suffering, and may become dangerous to themselves or others, before they can begin getting better.

“It’s terrible,” says Marge Chapman, executive director of the Dauphin County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI.

Kathleen Zwierzyna, head of the NAMI chapter for Cumberland and Perry counties, tells of a relative who waited more than five months for an appointment with a psychiatrist. “We know many families who have lived through it,” she says.

Long waits extend to young people who show signs of mental illness at school and are referred by school staff, says Dan Daniels, executive director of the NAMI organization serving York and Adams counties.

Nearly half of Pennsylvania counties have no psychiatrist, says Christine Michaels, CEO of NAMI Keystone Pennsylvania.

“Yet there’s a crisis with suicide,” she says, noting areas that lack psychiatrists tend to be economically-depressed and have higher rates of depression among residents.

Psychiatrists, who are medical doctors, play a key role in diagnosing mental illness and deciding what treatment and medication should be used. Sometimes, symptoms return in patients who have been doing well, putting them in need of a psychiatrist to change or adjust their medication.

When people experiencing mental illness have to wait to be diagnosed, or begin medication or have it adjusted, it can disrupt their ability to work, attend school or care for their family, says Dr. Erika Saunders, chair of psychiatry at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Worse, it can put them at high risk of having to be hospitalized, ending up in jail or committing suicide, she says

Beyond that, delays can trigger other health problems and cause harrowing and destabilizing times for families. “There is a huge burden on families who are trying to care for their loved one,” Saunders says.

One central Pennsylvania resident who doesn’t want his name published experienced a return of a condition that had been well-controlled for years with medication. He learned his Harrisburg-area psychiatrist had retired. He says he contacted the area’s three major health systems: Penn State Health, UPMC Pinnacle and Geisinger Holy Spirit.

None could offer a near-term appointment, he says. One provided a list of private psychiatrists, but none were available. One suggested he try again in fall.  “We have a severe shortage of mental health professionals,” Saunders says. “We’re doing our best to care for [the sickest] patients, but we need to expand access for all patients.”

The shortage is severe not only in Pennsylvania but in much of the United States.

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