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Mental hospital bed shortage putting people at risk



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PARK CITY — Brenda Bennett tried many avenues to find the right help for her daughter Sara, but every place they called had a long waiting list.

"At that point you feel like you are really trying to save your child's life," Bennett said.

Sara talks excitedly about her future now, but a few months ago the 17-year-old had no hope for the future.

"I started having thoughts of just disappearing," she explained.

Since sixth grade, Sara has seen multiple therapists to help her deal with anxiety and then last year began taking medication. In the spring, she began experiencing serious thoughts of suicide.

"I didn't know what to do. I just needed to do something to get rid of how I was feeling," Bennett said.

On a particularly difficult day, Sara tried to see the counselor at school, but after waiting an hour because the counselor was tied up with another student, she gave up, went home and tried to take her life.

"You don't even know what to feel. It's just you are frantic," she said. "It's a bottomless pit of emotions and you can't grasp anything."

Sara was treated in the emergency room and released. A few weeks later she begged to be hospitalized.

"It wasn't just my mom," Sara explained. "It was me personally walking in saying I need to be admitted somewhere and I still couldn't get help."

No beds were available. A week later she attempted suicide again.

Kristen Cook, 28, faced a similar battle with her mental health and said she "had a meltdown at work and that's when I knew it was really serious and I needed to get help right away."

Cook's mother took her to the emergency room but they were also sent home.

"After we went to the emergency room, we just didn't know what to do," said Stephanie Cook, Kristen's mother. "There was a time when every little noise would come out of her room, I would run in there."

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Unfortunately, Kristen and Sara's experiences are not isolated.

"It does happen. It happens often," said Doug Gray, a psychiatrist and suicidologist at the University of Utah Neuropsychiatric Institute.

Within the last five years the hospital has doubled the number of beds.

"I expected we had so many beds that we wouldn't be filling up and we are full many nights and people trying to get in the hospital can't," Gray said.

One of the reasons is there are simply not enough doctors. Psychiatrists are now the second most highly recruited physicians after family doctors, according to the 2017 Review of Physician and Advanced Practitioner Recruiting Incentives.

Hospitals in Utah are trying to work around that.

"At least the hospital administrators are willing to make sure if there is a bed open somewhere else they will pay for that patient to go to a different hospital," Gray explained.

Mobile crisis units have also been able to free up more beds and Gray believes more outpatient services would prevent crisis situations.

"There's been no effort on the part of the insurance companies to really connect people with that care," Gray said. "You worry that people who are highly resourced can figure out how to weave through the system and somebody that is naive to the system is going to get very, very frustrated."

Brenda Bennett said they discovered a big gap when they tried to find help beyond counseling.

"There needs to be something in between the start of recognizing there's a problem and the absolute crisis," she said. "I feel like we stumbled through and Sara suffered unnecessarily."

Once Sara Bennett was hospitalized she got the right help.

Warning signs & how to help

Warning signs of suicide

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings
The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. Warning signs are associated with suicide but may not be what causes a suicide. Information from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

What to do if you see warning signs of suicide

  • Do not leave the person alone
  • Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
  • Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional
Information from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

"Going into group therapy and seeing other people are going through the same things that I am was the most helpful," Sara explained. "The future is looking awesome now. I have a lot of plans and things I am excited for."

Hospitalization also helped Kristen Cook get on the right medication.

"It's not as dark," she said. "It's not hopeless and it's not scary, now that I have the right tools."

The Cook and Bennett families advice to other families is to feep fighting until they find the right help.

"Keep talking," Kristen Cook said. "Keep asking because there will be someone who can help you."

Kristen and Stephanie Cook are board members of the Utah chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. They say the non-profit offers peer support and can connect families with other families who have navigated the mental health system maze.

The National Alliance On Mental Illness also offers families classes and programs.

Like cancer, diabetes and asthma, mental illness is treatable and patients can have "really good outcomes," Gray emphasized.

Suicide Prevention Resources
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call the suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.

Crisis Hotlines

  • Utah County Crisis Line: 801-691-5433
  • Salt Lake County/UNI Crisis Line: 801-587-3000
  • Wasatch Mental Health Crisis Line: 801-373-7393
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Trevor Project Hotline for LGBTQ teens: 1-866-488-7386

Online resources

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Candice Madsen and Deanie Wimmer

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