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Why do mentally ill Missourians struggle to get hospital care?

Many Missourians living with a mental illness are able to manage their disease well enough to live at home and receive outpatient mental health care. But others sometimes need to go to the hospital periodically, either voluntarily or involuntarily, for their own safety and the safety of others.

The Missouri Department of Mental Health says that mentally ill residents have the right “to be evaluated, treated or habilitated in the least restrictive environment.” Unfortunately, in reality the state’s mental health system is frequently unable to provide this vital medical service for everyone who needs it. There simply are not enough beds in qualified facilities for people who need hospitalization at any particular time.

An article in the Southeast Missourian examines the causes of this shortage. The medical director of Cape Girardeau’s Community Counseling Center blamed two factors the most. First, state government has cut the budget for the mental-health system over the years. And secondly, fewer than half of Missouri’s hospitals with psychiatric units accept involuntary commitments, further limiting options for families looking for a bed for a relative with severe mental illness.

It can take up to 48 hours for a hospital bed to open up. Until it does, no judge will grant an involuntary commitment and the patient must wait in the emergency room under police guard. Even when the patient is voluntarily seeking commitment, he or she may have to travel for hours to reach the closest bed, another official at Community Counseling Center explained.

Meanwhile, for many people their mental illness has forced them to stop working, or has made it impossible for them ever to support themselves financially. Social Security Disability Insurance or Supplemental Security Income may be options for people in this position.

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