Mental health case to go before NH Supreme Court

Published: Mar. 23, 2021 at 5:37 PM EDT
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LEBANON, N.H. (WCAX) - The New Hampshire Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Thursday about a woman held against her will for 17 days in a hospital emergency department before being transferred to a psychiatric unit. It’s an issue that mental health advocates say is getting worse.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, is not directly involved in the case filed in Merrimack County, but officials in New Hampshire are making their voices heard ahead of Thursday’s hearing.

“People in a mental health crisis should get immediate access to mental health treatment,” said Ken Norton, the executive director of NAMI New Hampshire.

But that did not happen with “Jane Doe,” a New Hampshire woman who was involuntarily held for more than two weeks in an emergency department while she waited for a psychiatric bed. New Hampshire law requires mental health patients receive a hearing within three days to determine if there is cause to hold them against their will.

“The process of emergency department boarding is wrong medically, legally, ethically, morally and economically,” Norton said.

There are currently 53 adults and 33 children in emergency departments across the Granite State waiting for mental health beds. Officials at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center call it an acute situation that is “unacceptable for both patients and our ED providers.”

“The fact that we can, in the middle of the pandemic, stand up surge centers and mass vaccination sites, as we should in a crisis, but we have allowed this mental health crisis to go on for nine years now and getting worse and worse by the day says that we continue to discriminate against people with mental illness,” Norton said.

New Hampshire has made progress over the years reducing wait times by investing in mobile crisis teams and dedicating more beds to treatment. But the pandemic has reversed those gains and advocates for the mentally ill say more needs to be done.

“Part of the issue is that it is not just a problem of the state. Hospitals, insurance companies all own part of this problem in terms of not meeting the needs of the people of the state of New Hampshire,” Norton said.

According to state officials, the waitlist for psychiatric care beds is currently at an all-time high.

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