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Giving Back Blog

  • Writer's pictureAscension Illinois Foundation

A Behavioral Health Crisis in the Emergency Room


Patients on gurneys around the nurses’ station in the ER at Ascension Saint Alexius in Hoffman Estates.

An older patient in a private bay in our emergency room (ER) was being treated for chest pain. In the hallway outside of the room, a young man in behavioral health crisis was on a gurney being monitored. All other ER bays were occupied by patients with medical needs, so there was no private space available for him. A couple of his family members came in.

“You’re not doing this to this family again!” one of them yelled. “You’re never coming home!”

The family member left suddenly and the young man became hysterical. Overhearing this, the older patient in the bay who had been experiencing chest pain became upset, adding stress to the patient’s already stressful medical situation.

The New Normal in Emergency Care

As the number of people coming to our ER with behavioral health needs has skyrocketed, these types of incidents have become more common at Ascension Saint Alexius.

Another time, a behavioral health patient in our ER became so agitated he had to be restrained by four security guards. Numerous adolescents with severe autism have had to stay in our ER for multiple days because there was literally nowhere else for them to go.

The need for specialized care in our ER for behavioral health and medical patients is greater than ever. This is the new normal, and it requires a new approach.

A New Approach to Better Serve More than 60,000 People

Before the pandemic, we were seeing more than 60,000 annual ER visits at Ascension Saint Alexius. Because our ER is on the same campus as the largest behavioral health hospital in Illinois, a disproportionate number of patients in our ER have highly complicated mental illnesses — eating disorders, psychosis or mania, or severe autism or developmental delays. With the pandemic, there has also been a significant uptick in alcohol and substance use.

Our Emergency Department is trained to treat and admit medical emergencies. However, the high volume of behavioral and substance dependence emergencies, requiring lengthy care to find placement, diverts space and staff resources from our other critical patients.

It is our mission to provide the best care possible for every patient — for behavioral health as well as medical patients. We need the right environment and space to do so.

Leaders in Behavioral Medicine Transforming Emergency Care

As Illinois’s leader in behavioral medicine, we are leading the way in transforming emergency care, starting with our ER at Ascension Saint Alexius.

Creating a space in the ER dedicated exclusively to behavioral health patients will give them the privacy, dignity and environment they need to decompress and deescalate. Nurses will be specially trained in behavioral medicine. Crisis workers, also specially trained to deal with patients with addiction and behavioral health, will be right alongside them.

Medical patients and behavioral health patients alike will receive the specialized care they each need.

We are excited to create serenity in the middle of our ER for patients who need it, and to do all that we can to give them the best care and uphold their dignity at a time when they are already vulnerable enough.

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Emily Dagostino

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Ascension Illinois Foundation

708-829-4167

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