We don’t have enough psychiatrists in the state. Period.
That’s the word from Gina Eckert, Indiana’s director of the Division of Mental Health and Chemical Addiction. She was speaking at a town hall meeting in Fort Wayne. The meeting was part of the department’s bid to win support for its plan to emphasize recovery for persons with mental illness.
Of course, nobody needed to tell the 100 or so people gathered at the community college auditorium about the lack of psychiatrists in the state. The therapists know it. The psychiatric nurses know it. And consumers who have to wait for weeks or months just to see a psychiatrist have their own horror stories about the consequences of not getting help in a timely fashion.
Yet our town – and I venture to say most of the state – is better off when it comes to mental health services than communities hit by disaster. Say New Orleans. Think Katrina. Think BP’s mammoth oil spill in the Gulf.
A story this week in The New York Times brought home to me a mental health catastrophe as few things could. In the story, we’re introduced to Hong Le, a deck hand on a fishing boat. For years he’d been sending home money to his family in Vietnam, in hopes of bringing them to the United States someday.
Now he survives on a small check he gets from BP for helping with the clean-up.
Is he devastated? Is Hong Le deeply troubled? Is he distraught? Is he depressed? Probably all of this.
Where’s the psychiatrist to help make this all bearable? The Gulf region has lots of such doctors and other mental health professionals. But there’s no way the region has enough to deal with those suffering now.
Hong Le is one of thousands whose livelihood has been put on indefinite hold. Worse, their very lives, their future are in doubt. Lots of refugees from Vietnam and their families work on these fishing boats or otherwise in the industry in communities along the Gulf.
Catholic Charities is one of a number of social agencies trying to address the overwhelming need for services. But it is daunting.
Catholic Charities interviewed 9,800 people since May 1. Of those, 1,593 exhibited signs of major depression. The Times story didn’t mention the number of suicides. No doubt there have been some already. And the counselors ask each person if they’ve been thinking about killing themselves. This is desperate. This is the kind of emotional distress you’d find among civilians in a war zone.
Meantime, another even more terrible story has been in the news the past week: ethnic violence in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgystan. Apparently hundreds of an ethnic minority have been slaughtered and tens of thousands have fled their towns and villages, many homes reduced to rubble. Those who survive will bear the scars the rest of their lives. No need here for an errant gene or other biological cause to account for an outbreak of major mental illness. The terrors of civil war are quite sufficient.
Our state mental health director, a former therapist herself, probably won’t live to see droves of medical students choosing psychiatry as a speciality. Economics in our state, and in all others I’m sure, are luring these bright young people away from psychiatry and family practice as well. The big dollars just aren’t there.
I wish Gina Eckert and the state the best in the campaign to upgrade mental health services, funding those that show good outcomes and focus on recovery. I welcome such hopeful words. But our hearts must sink as we contemplate the mental distress and the challenge to the finite number of healers in the Gulf. We can barely imagine the sorrows still unfolding so far away in Afghanistan.
A shortage of psychiatrists? I can think of places where they should be so lucky. Where there simply are none.
Where are the young medical students who will rise to the challenge?