The inimitable Dr. Ryan McCormick recently wrote a piece that summarized research findings that he, as a primary care physician, can apply in clinical practice. In the section describing outcomes related to antidepressant dose, he notes:
As an aside, it may be shocking to note that psychiatrists prescribe only 21% of the antidepressants in the U.S., with the other 79% of prescriptions usually coming from primary care providers!
(Similarly, primary care providers write about half the prescriptions for benzodiazepines.)
Much of the burden of psychiatric services falls to primary care and emergency medicine. Some data suggest that nearly 60% of US counties do not have a single psychiatrist. While primary care and emergency medicine physicians can and do provide psychiatric services, they can be put into positions where they are addressing psychological issues beyond their scope of expertise. I mean no disrespect in writing that. Just as it is a terrible idea for me, a psychiatrist, to manage complex diabetes, it is unideal for non-psychiatrists to manage complex psychiatric conditions.
Sometimes people end up developing complex psychiatric symptoms and conditions because they are unable to access support, care, and services earlier. As a result, larger numbers of people end up accessing services in urgent or emergent ways (e.g., emergency departments and criminal-legal systems). Local jurisdictions then receive increasing demands to build crisis response systems. For example, Seattle-King County recently announced a future ballot measure to build five mental health crisis centers in the region.
There will always be a role for crisis centers, as life is unpredictable and collisions of fate and bad luck can result in crises. However, if the crisis system has the most open doors and is the most robust part of the system, then this will only increase the number of people who will use that system.
We can pick any point in a theoretical journey through the crisis system, but let’s start with the crisis center. Let’s say that all five centers have been established and that these centers receive the most dedicated funding and attention. Maybe John Doe is able to access the crisis center directly, which is a boon to first responders and emergency departments—it’s one less person they need to provide care for (and they’re often are not the best suited to give support, anyway). Once John Doe is not as overwhelmed, what are the next steps?
If the crisis centers have received the most dedicated funding and resources (staffing, advertising, etc.), that probably means that other resources—like step-down units or outpatient clinics—will not have the same level of support. Thus, it might be weeks or maybe even a few months before John can get into a clinic.
John can do the best that he can to make it until that appointment, but what if something else happens and he need urgent care? His choices might be limited to an emergency department (which, no offense to my ED colleagues, are not therapeutic places to be) or to return to a crisis center. He might call a first responder, but that might entail an encounter with law enforcement (which is often not people’s first preference). Unless other resources are made available—unless there are other pathways he can take—he will continue riding the merry-go-round that is the crisis response system.
This is why it is essential to build and sustain prevention and early intervention system while also building crisis response structures. The tired phrase is “moving upstream”, but that is the most stable way to get people out of the crisis system.
I agree (to a point) with the New York Times’s editorial board: The Solution to America’s Mental Health Crisis Already Exists. This article provides an accurate history of how a vision of community-based care for some of the most psychiatrically ill and vulnerable people in our communities got degraded. Do I think it is the solution? Only when I feel particularly optimistic. Do I think it is a solution that could yield great rewards? Yes, though ideally this would be paired with other non-medical, community-driven prevention and early intervention efforts.
Prevention and early intervention systems don’t need to formally reside with medical or legal structures. In fact, it is better for the whole community if they don’t. (Let’s not kid ourselves: The vast majority of people don’t want to spend time in the health care system, particularly with psychiatrists. The health care system can do amazing things, but it is also rigid, expensive, and requires people to jump through a lot of hoops.)
Nathan Allebach recently created a TikTok video that describes the decline of “third places” (and I am relieved that he recognizes that car-dependent suburban sprawl isn’t the sole cause community erosion). I’m not saying that community erosion is the primary cause of psychiatric symptoms and distress. However, the presence of social bonds and community could not only alleviate symptoms, but could also prevent some psychological problems. What if interpersonal social networks were robust and included both more and different kinds of people and perspectives? What if fewer people felt lonely and “Good Neighbor Day” didn’t have to be a thing? (Full disclosure: I have a professional crush on Dr. Vivek Murthy.)
If it is true that at least some psychiatric conditions are “medicalized” sociological problems, then this is an arena where non-medical (though not necessarily political!) interventions could be invaluable. Fewer people would believe that their only option is to ask Dr. McCormick for antidepressant medication for anxiety and depression. Non-medical, community-based activities might be sufficient. Fewer people would need to go to emergency departments or crisis centers because resources and options in the community would be inviting and easily accessible. Maybe two crisis centers, instead of five, would suffice. And people would spend less time with (and money on) health care professionals and services, and more with people they want to spend time with… people in their chosen communities.