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Addressing the Behavioral Health Crisis in America

April 19, 2023
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Addressing the Behavioral Health Crisis

The United States is in the midst of a serious behavioral health crisis. So, mental health trends that had been growing for decades were suddenly pushed to the forefront of our society when the COVID-19 pandemic created widespread fear and worsened existing issues, like depression and anxiety. Meanwhile, substance use disorder statistics across the country began to climb higher and higher.

Often, SUD and mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, and PTSD exist simultaneously as co-occurring disorders, which can result in a behavioral health crisis. Regardless of one or multiple factors, many people go to hospitals, specifically the ER for such behaviors. But, are hospitals and healthcare facilities that receive such patients best equipped

What Is Considered a Behavioral Emergency?

The term “behavioral emergency” can be a little confusing at first, partially because behavioral and mental health are so often conflated. Behavioral health is, in fact, very similar to mental health. However, it concerns not just a person’s psychology but their overall physical well-being as well.

As defined by the Agency for Health Research and Quality, behavioral emergencies involve situations that impact not only mental health but also physical health, such as stress-related illnesses or the impacts of substance use disorder. Under this definition, crises involving mental health disorders and substance use disorders are both considered a type of behavioral emergency.

Symptoms of a Behavioral Crisis

Because there is such a wide range of situations that may be considered a form of behavioral crisis, there is simply no one-size-fits-all list of symptoms that encompass all behavioral health crises. The symptoms present will depend on the patient’s unique situation and the mental health disorder involved.

In many cases, this can make it difficult to tell whether a patient presenting with physical symptoms is experiencing a behavioral emergency unless they disclose a mental health condition. For example, a patient who is experiencing insomnia may have less obvious symptoms than a patient who is malnourished and experiencing anorexia.

Alternatively, symptoms may originate with a physical illness that is either exacerbated by or directly contributing to a mental health disorder. As a result, it’s vital to assess the potential psychological component of physical health issues to determine whether the patient is experiencing a behavioral crisis.

Examples of Behavioral Emergencies

Examples of Behavioral Emergencies

Because behavioral health emergencies are such a broad category, there are many potential conditions that fit under this umbrella. Some of the more common behavioral health emergencies include emergencies healthcare professionals experience on a regular basis, even if the facility is not well-equipped to handle them.

These scenarios qualify as behavioral emergencies:

Mental Health Emergencies

People diagnosed with mental health disorders face much more severe obstacles than simply “feeling down” or “being anxious.” Although mental health disorders result from issues within the brain, physical health can also suffer when mental health does. For example, symptoms of depression include trouble sleeping, lack of appetite, mysterious aches and pains, and digestive issues. These physical symptoms qualify depression as a potential behavioral emergency, especially when patients seek treatment out of concern for the physical manifestations of the mental health disorder. Other mental health disorders like anxiety also fit this description.

Some mental health disorders are capable of causing even more severe physical issues. Eating disorders can result in either overeating or malnutrition, both of which can seriously affect physical health. Like depression, eating disorders originate psychologically, but they have such serious physical consequences that they are considered a behavioral health emergency that warrants a visit to a healthcare facility.

Substance Use Disorders

Substance use disorders like alcohol use disorder and opioid use disorder often originate as mental health disorders and psychological cravings but produce severe physical symptoms. These symptoms are often the result of the chosen substance, such as when alcohol leads to liver damage or acute alcohol poisoning. Other physical symptoms occur when the individual is trying to cease using a substance, which can result in severe withdrawals.

Withdrawals can run the gamut from damaging to potentially fatal. Withdrawing from tobacco, for example, can affect appetite and cause insomnia, while the symptoms of withdrawing from alcohol can range from nausea to seizures, delirium tremors, and death. As a result, many individuals with substance use disorders visit the emergency room to deal with their physical symptoms. However, recovering from such a disorder requires psychological and emotional help, as well – two services many emergency rooms are not well-equipped to provide on a 24-hour basis.

Suicidal Thoughts and Actions

Though “suicidality” is often classified as a symptom of mental health disorders like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or bipolar disorder, suicidal thoughts and actions can also be considered behavioral health issues on their own. Suicide has claimed the lives of thousands of children and adults alike, and millions more are considering or attempting suicide each year. People with suicidal thoughts are also at risk of self-harm, which is another severe physical manifestation of a psychological issue.

How Behavioral Healthcare Consultants Lend Awareness

Behavioral Healthcare Consultants

Understanding the behavioral health crises of today is only the first step. Establishing your ability to help people suffering from a behavioral health crisis is quite another, and it can be difficult due to the complex nature of these disorders. Providing aid to someone in a behavioral crisis that exceeds the standard of care is an important aspect of operating a business in the healthcare field.

Hospital patients may be uncertain whether traditional healthcare facilities, such as hospital ERs, are truly the best place to turn during a behavioral health emergency. After all, physical health symptoms are of utmost concern, and monitoring by a professional who specializes in addiction and mental health may be needed to ensure recovery.

However, visiting an emergency room can be ill-advised. In fact, doing so can negatively impact all involved, from the physical safety of the patient to the ability of the hospital or other healthcare business to help other patients. Consider these factors that may influence whether a standard hospital emergency room should handle behavioral emergencies; perhaps it’s best to hire a consultant or build an in-house team that is better equipped to treat such conditions.

Regulations and Purpose

Behavioral health crises are more than just a set of physical symptoms; they are a complex network of physical and emotional issues that are the result of mental health concerns. As such, patients cannot receive successful treatment for a behavioral emergency if they’re only offered help for the physical symptoms. It’s important to remember that emergency room physicians and nurses aren’t therapists and often aren’t adequately trained to render proper mental health aid. In some cases, emergency department protocols may leave a patient feeling even worse.

Ultimately, sending a patient to the emergency room for a behavioral health emergency often results in that patient eventually being sent home with the underlying issue unaddressed – even if the physical problems are mitigated temporarily. Meanwhile, patients with medical emergencies wait to receive treatment as behavioral emergencies pile up. In this scenario, everyone suffers.

Money and Time

Frequent trips to the emergency room with little benefit in return can quickly become costly for someone experiencing addiction or mental health disorders that cause behavioral emergencies. As money issues are often a primary cause of stress, this situation may be compounded as a repeated cycle of emergencies, bills, and anxiety. Worse, the cause at the root of the behavioral emergency will remain unaddressed, leaving the door open for future issues and future losses of time and money.

Unfortunately, patients aren’t the only ones at risk of financial and productivity losses. Hospitals and emergency rooms must provide beds and amenities to patients awaiting proper mental health assessment, decreasing their overall capacity. This also means emergency room and general healthcare physicians and nurses must continue to devote time to treating physical symptoms they may not know the cause of, while the hospital loses money due to depleted resources and fewer patients.

Behavioral Crisis Alternatives

Treating patients with behavioral emergencies isn’t easy, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible for traditional healthcare businesses. The key is to have the proper systems in place, which often include providing patients with alternatives beyond ER care. If this is done well, everyone benefits: patients can get the physical and mental health help they need, while emergency rooms can focus on treating the medical emergencies they’re equipped for.

Behavioral health services are an obvious solution to this issue. These can take place in long-term rehabilitation facilities and detox centers, both of which are designed to provide help with mental health and substance abuse issues. However, most do not offer emergency behavioral healthcare for non-established patients. That’s why for most people, the emergency room is the first option, especially as mental health services are often perceived as expensive, taboo, or simply unavailable in their area.

As an alternative, traditional healthcare businesses should consider offering emergency behavioral health services. These services must stand apart from the emergency room and provide both mental health and physical healthcare offerings to ensure patient safety without drawing from the resources of the existing emergency department.

Healthcare Management Consultant Services

Healthcare Management Consultant Services

Consulting companies already have the expertise and framework in place to help you establish behavioral healthcare services in your current business. A knowledgeable consultant can help you strategize how to approach handling the behavioral health crises your business encounters the most, frame these services within your existing offerings, and get your new components up and running. In many cases, third-party consultants can also help with staffing, resourcing, billing, healthcare navigation, and more, so your offerings can run smoothly and concurrently without negatively impacting one another.

Navigating the behavioral health crisis is difficult at all levels of healthcare, and it’s the businesses that are able to identify local needs and respond accordingly that will make the most significant positive impact on the crisis and their bottom line. As new strategies develop, the ability to stay on top of the changing times will ensure that your healthcare facility can combat the behavioral health crisis effectively without risking losses of productivity and resources.

If your healthcare facility needs a reliable way to provide behavioral health services but you aren’t sure where to begin, consult with a healthcare manager from Apogee System Consultants. With services such as recruitment, revenue assessment and advice, market development strategies, and more, we can help your healthcare facility provide efficient, effective care to people in need. Contact us today to learn more about how we can help your healthcare business become more effective.


  1. https://drugabusestatistics.org/
  2. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2020-38568-001
  3. https://www.cdc.gov/suicide/suicide-data-statistics.html
  4. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/71/wr/mm7108a5.htm
  5. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/ppt/nchs2012/ss-32_claassen.pdf
  6. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/chronic-illness-mental-health
  7. https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/campaign/tips/quit-smoking/7-common-withdrawal-symptoms/
James Haggerty

A Time to Heal: Family Interventions offers personalized SUD Interventions, Addiction Recovery Planning, Case Management, Sober Companionship and Family Support. Call 310-450-6627 to connect with us.

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