With mental health treatment in short supply, Americans experiencing a psychiatric crisis frequently land in a hospital emergency room—brought in by the police or loved ones—and usually stay there until they can be safely discharged or transferred. That means patients can spend hours or even days stuck on a gurney until a spot opens in a psych ward, the only other setting deemed appropriate.
The approach rarely offers any real treatment for mental health conditions, and it ties up scarce ER beds. That’s spurred some hospitals to try a new idea: mental health crisis units designed to treat people quickly in a more serene setting, so they can stabilize patients and send them home. “There’s no other emergency in the ER where the default treatment is to find them a bed,” says Scott Zeller, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California in Riverside. Zeller developed the model, called Empath (emergency psychiatric assessment, treatment, and healing), to improve care while avoiding unnecessary time in the emergency department.