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What will happen if I go to the ER for emergency mental health treatment during COVID?

If you’re having a mental health crisis and need immediate support, you may decide to go to the emergency room (ER). Making the decision to seek emergency help can be overwhelming, and it may feel even more stressful during the COVID-19 pandemic. While there may be a few extra steps you have to take due to new regulations, knowing what to expect can ease some of your concerns.

Early on in the pandemic, many emergency departments saw a sharp decrease in visits, likely due to fear of COVID’s high contagiousness[i]. It’s an understandable worry, but hospitals across the country are taking extreme measures to prevent the spread of COVID and ensure everyone’s safety. These new practices are important, but they also mean that your experience will probably be different from any ER visits you’ve had in the past. People who have tested positive for COVID-19 or have symptoms will probably be in an isolated unit, so you won’t share any common spaces with them. Most hospitals are requiring everyone to wear a mask, and some are even requesting that people put on a clean hospital mask upon entering the building. Many have rearranged their waiting rooms to allow for proper distancing between patients and boosted their cleaning routines.

Aside from increased cleaning and masks, here’s what you can expect when visiting the ER for a mental health concern during this time:

  1. Most hospitals are restricting visitors to reduce the risk of spread. It will depend on the hospital you visit and their regulations, but you should be prepared to go into the ER alone, even if you arrive with a friend or family member. If you want their support, you can video call them once you’re in the hospital.
  2. Emergency rooms are notoriously busy, so you might be waiting for a few hours. And depending on the medical staff’s assessment, you could be in the hospital for a few days. Wear comfortable clothes and bring your phone, and a book or tablet (and charger) to help you pass the time.
  3. Due to COVID precautions, you will likely get a brief screen for COVID as soon as you walk into the building or even before – some places have stationed health care workers outside to conduct these evaluations. Everyone is screened this way, even if they come to the hospital for something other than COVID. They will ask if you’ve had any COVID symptoms and take your temperature. People with COVID symptoms or a fever will enter a different part of the hospital than non-COVID patients.
  4. At the registration desk, you will fill out some paperwork and answer questions about insurance, your medical history, and other background information.
  5. Shortly after checking in, medical staff will conduct a brief assessment to determine how urgent your situation is. They should be able to give you an estimate of how long you’ll be waiting.
  6. The main event of your ER visit will likely be a psychiatric evaluation. Your team of mental health professionals will determine a working diagnosis and plan of action for treatment.
  7. Depending on your evaluation, you may be given medication, provided crisis counseling, or receive a referral for treatment after leaving the hospital. If your doctors are concerned for your safety, they may decide to admit you to the hospital for a few days or transfer you to a different hospital that specializes in treating people with mental health concerns. In those cases, they may administer a rapid COVID test before relocating you. A healthcare professional will swab the back of your nose or throat and have results in under 30 minutes.

If you think you might need to go to the ER for mental health support in the coming months, it may help to have a plan in place before you reach crisis. You can use MHA’s Think Ahead worksheet to help you prepare.

[i] Jeffery, M.M., D’Onofrio, G., Paek, H., et al. (2020). Trends in emergency department visits and hospital admissions in health care systems in 5 states in the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US. JAMA Internal Medicine. Published online August 03, 2020. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2020.3288