Petaluman recounts ‘mortifying’ experience at Santa Rosa Kaiser amid mental health crisis
From the editor: The following story discusses events that may be triggering to those experiencing mental health difficulties. Please see the list of mental health resources at the story’s end. Because of the sensitive nature of the story, we are not providing Miles’ last name.
Miles was in the grips of a serious mental health crisis.
The 20-year-old Petaluman, who has struggled all his life with anxiety, mania and depression, had tried in late August to make a therapy appointment with his healthcare provider, Kaiser Permanente. But there were no appointments available for weeks to come.
This was in part because Kaiser mental health clinicians had begun a 10-week strike, leading to hundreds of canceled appointments for behavioral health services throughout Northern California in a system the strikers said was already understaffed and unmanageable.
So on a particularly bad day in early September, as Miles’ symptoms spiraled out of control, he and his mother, Lori, went to Santa Rosa to check him into the Kaiser Permanente emergency room there – passing through striking health care workers’ picket lines to do so.
“I had previously been hospitalized out of that emergency room four times when I was younger,” Miles said in a recent interview. “So for the fifth time, I was like, ‘I know they can do it well. I’ve had alright experiences.
“But it didn’t end up going well at all. It was mortifying.”
In fact, he said it was one of the most terrifying nights of his life. Miles, despite being deemed an immediate threat to himself and placed under 72-hour surveillance, managed to obtain a razor blade and slashed his own throat.
The incident happened as Kaiser’s Northern California mental health workers were holding a more than two-month-long strike, which ended in October.
At the same time, state health officials had been called to investigate the level of care the Santa Rosa emergency room was providing, after reports of at least two attempted suicides came through the same weekend that Miles checked into the emergency room.
According to a statement by Kaiser Permanente provided by Adriann McCall, a Kaiser Permanente media liaison, “Out of respect for patient privacy, we cannot provide information about an individual patient.”
The statement said the California Department of Public Health spent an entire day reviewing emergency department processes, consultations, safety protocols, coverage, and care transitions for patients undergoing treatment for psychiatric conditions, and that they were “recognized as thorough and compliant.”
“Patient safety in our Emergency Department is our priority and an area of extreme focus for us, especially in terms of those who may harm themselves,” the statement said.
“Over the past few years, we have taken additional steps to strengthen our detailed protocols to assure self-safety, which includes appropriate monitoring of all patients at risk of harm, environmental and structural safety enhancements, increased security, metal detector wanding, and immediate action with escalation processes in place at all times.”
The statement also said Kaiser’s work was recently reviewed and validated by the Joint Commission, an independent body that evaluates and accredits healthcare organizations, “whose comprehensive accreditation survey includes hospital suicide prevention strategies and procedures.”
Living with bipolar
Miles was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 18, but said he has known anxiety, depression and bouts of mania for as long as he can remember. His symptoms are not necessarily caused by any particular event, he said.
“It’s kind of hard for me to differentiate a time I never felt that way,” Miles said. “It’s always just kind of been there.”
He added he “struggled a lot with really bad bouts of depression and then really extreme mania. Growing up with that, with no answers, was just really difficult.”
He described his depression as a black hole that forces him into a darkness with no end point and where he is his own worst enemy. As for the mania, Miles said it resembles a “fever-like state” where he loses control of his senses and decision-making ability.
“It’s not good. I’ll go days on end without talking to any of my friends,” he said, adding that mania is one of the most difficult things for him to deal with. “You just lose track of yourself.”
But what can be even worse than the symptoms themselves is the shame that comes with them.
“I feel incredibly embarrassed that my brain works the way it does, because it really is still so stigmatized,” Miles said.