For the past week I’ve been following the Ice Breaker Run which is a group of people running across the country relay style in order to bring awareness to mental illness and addiction. It’s truly inspiring. One of the runners shared a story today about a young girl with a heroin addiction who finally decided to seek help by admitting herself to a treatment center. Long story short they denied her insurance, she went home and shortly thereafter died from an overdose.
This story angers me because it is way too common and it triggered memories of experiences I have had with hospitals, doctors and insurance companies while coping with my illness. A few experiences I have already shared but this warrants more discussion because it truly is unacceptable and contributes to people dying. When someone is sick and decides to take a huge step by asking for help they should not under any circumstance be turned away or judged.
At one point when my illness was at its peak, my husband and I made the difficult decision for me to be admitted to a hospital a few hours away because they had a unit specializing in eating disorders (ED). We prepared ourselves for the likelihood I’d be gone for 30 days but since I was once again in crisis due to my bipolar and was struggling with an ED I had dealt with for most of my life, we made the commitment to find a way to treat both my illnesses once and for all…or so we thought.
Treatment was intense and I was able to see a doctor twice a day. A few days into my stay however, my insurance company decided it was not an appropriate setting for me because I was not thin enough to justify treatment. According to them I did not have a life threatening condition so they would no longer cover my stay. How in the world do you tell someone with an ED that they are not skinny enough for treatment, especially when the doctor who saw me EVERYDAY insisted I needed to be there? I freaked out at the possibility of facing thousands of dollars for treatment so on New Year’s Day I left against medical advice going home feeling more hopeless than ever.
A few weeks later I found myself at a nearby hospital once again because I had literally given up. I remember sitting in the ER for over 6 hours waiting to see a doctor. Eventually it was determined I needed to be admitted but it took another 2 hours for them to convince my insurance company that it was necessary. They were not going to consent due to the fact that I had recently signed myself out of a hospital so they questioned my intentions and whether I actually needed help. I remember yelling and cursing because the reason I was even there was because of them in the first place. I told the doctor I was going to walk out and kill myself right on the sidewalk; now they had no choice but to admit me. For 2 more hours I was left confined to a tiny room ready to explode waiting for a bed to open up. Not once did I see another doctor or did anyone check on me.
The entire time I was there the doctors were pressured by my insurance to release me as soon as possible. They did not want to pay for more than 7 days. I sat across from my doctor one morning in tears ( because all I did was cry at this point) as he actually told me my insurance felt I was there long enough and wanted to know why I was taking so long to get better.
Before being discharged hospital policy stated that I must have an appointment with a psychiatrist in order to leave. I sat with the social worker while she spoke to the receptionist at my doctor’s office who obnoxiously said I should probably find a different doctor because mine could no longer help me. She hung up the phone, looked me right in the eyes and suggested I should really start thinking about my behavior before I burned any more bridges! I demanded to use the phone, called my doctor directly and after explaining what had just happened he scheduled an appointment for the next day and apologized for the inappropriate comments from his receptionist.
I recall another time sitting in the ER waiting for insurance approval a week after I insisted on being discharged from a different hospital where I had chairs thrown at me and psychotic patients sneaking into my room at night with God knows what intentions. They had the nerve to tell the ER doctor that I needed to go back to where I came from because I never should have left there in the first place.
Thankfully I have not needed a hospital in several years but to be honest the hoops I’d have to jump through certainly reduce the chances I would even seek help there. How is that ok?
I realize this is a problem with other medical conditions as well– like being rushed out of the hospital 1-2 days after giving birth– but it is much more difficult for people with addiction or mental health issues to get the care they deserve because the severity of the illness can’t always be seen physically or be confirmed by a blood test or high tech machine. In a sense they have to take our word for it. A nurse once told me it would be easier to get help and I’d be taken more seriously if I had slit my wrists or overdosed.
It’s difficult enough (and sometimes humiliating) to walk into an ER and have to explain to the receptionist you are there because you are afraid of killing yourself. Saying that out loud to a stranger or hearing your husband voice that concern is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. But during a crisis it is necessary, just like it’s necessary when we break a bone or have a heart attack.
How can one focus on getting well while having to deal with the fear of being “thrown out” or taking too long to improve just enough to make room for the next guy who has been waiting for over 12 hours in the ER for your spot because it’s the only psych unit in the area that is not a nightmare?
My intent is not to scare anyone who needs assistance. Despite these obstacles I have received life saving care that I am very grateful for. But I had to speak up for myself and I will continue to do so.
I hope this provokes anger towards the system and motivation for us to make things better. I hope it also provokes empathy, compassion and a willingness to support those who have decided to seek the help they deserve but may not have the means to get it.
Thank God for people like the ones who are devoting time to run across the country to raise awareness and are fighting for our rights and better care. This is a crisis in our country (and worldwide) and we cannot be ok with that, especially since most of us know someone suffering from one of these illnesses. The system is complicated but we have to start somewhere otherwise people will continue to die because of a system that only cares about numbers and money. How can something be so impersonal when it’s a matter of life and death?
If someone you know needs help GO WITH THEM! Talk to the doctors, be persistent and demand care. My husband has made phone calls on my behalf several times when I’ve given up or was unable to express myself. It absolutely made a difference. However, not everyone is as fortunate as I am to have someone who refuses to give up so it’s even more important that those of us who are capable speak out and demand what’s right. Progress is being made and I am so grateful for the people who are taking a stand and are willing to make a difference. Raising awareness is so critical in facilitating change.
Let’s make a commitment to share our stories and help those around us who need us and can’t fight for themselves. Support the organizations that work relentlessly for change and strive to be the person who is going to positively impact someone’s life. The opportunities are endless; look around and pay attention. You can absolutely make a difference.
1 John 4:11
Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.