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Facing Surge In Demand For Psychiatric Care, Acadia Hospital Seeks Expansion

Northern Light Acadia Hospital
Northern Light Acadia Hospital
Northern Light Acadia Hospital

Northern Light Acadia Hospital in Bangor announced on Friday that it needs to expand in order to meet the growing demand for psychiatric care.

Hospital officials say the COVID-19 pandemic caused a surge dating back to last March that hasn't dissipated, and other hospitals in Maine say they're also overwhelmed with patients who are in mental health crisis.

Of the roughly 330 psychiatric beds in the state, Acadia Hospital has about a third.

The hospital is licensed for 100 beds, but practically speaking, says president Scott Oxley, it can only use 60 at any given time because most rooms are doubles. Sharing a room with a stranger, he says, is not ideal for patients who are dealing with psychosis and anxiety.

"Not all of our patients are very good roommates. They come in, they're very, very sick. And we've seen that more so over time. It's a much sicker population today than when we opened nearly 30 years ago," Oxley says.

And Oxley says demand for in-patient psychiatric care has also escalated - especially over the past year. In the first month of the pandemic — March 2020 — Acadia Hospital saw a nearly 50% spike from the previous year in the number of psychiatric consultations it provided to the 17 hospital emergency rooms it partners with.

On any given day, says Oxley, about 30 people who come to these emergency rooms need a psychiatric bed. Half of them are adolescents. Acadia's Jamilyn Murphy-Hughes tries to find to a bed for all of them.

"So they can wait for a few hours to up to, I think we had someone waiting for hospitalization for three or four weeks," she says.

To get care to patients more quickly, Acadia Hospital wants to be able to use all 100 of its beds. And that means expanding to create more private rooms. The projected cost is about $25 million dollars, and would need approval from state regulators.

The surge in demand isn't just happening at Acadia - it's at hospitals across the state.

Last fall, MaineHealth expanded the number of psychiatric beds at Sanford Medical Center to meet the increased need.

MaineGeneral in Augusta says it's seeing an increase both in the number of adults and children who need psychiatric care and in the length of time they stay in the emergency department due to a lack of resources.

And St. Mary's Hospital in Lewiston, which has a dedicated psychiatric emergency department designed for eight to 12 patients, is currently taking in double that amount.

"We've been completely overwhelmed," says Dr. Michael Kelley, chief medical officer of behavioral health at St Mary's. "On a given morning, I've got 10 to 15 people stuck in the emergency room waiting for the next available bed, which is just unheard of levels."

Kelley says the pandemic has caused a huge increase in stress, anxiety, and substance use disorders. And even though we're starting to emerge from it, Kelley says mental health doesn't rebound quickly.

"It's sort of scary. When we look historically in times of big trauma, and we look back at 9/11 and other big, national or worldwide traumas, the mental health impact can go on for years after the event finally ends. And we're not really completely out of this one, even though it is definitely improving," Kelley says.

St Mary's is working to address the situation by hiring more providers, but Kelley says there isn't a large pool to draw from.

"We've got open positions for counselors. We're trying to find more psychiatrists. Psychiatry is one of the hardest to recruit fields in all of medicine," he says.

Kelley says St. Mary's has a three-month wait time for patients to see psychiatrists. Elsewhere, he says, it can take half a year to get an appointment.

Corrected: June 14, 2021 at 10:06 AM EDT
In March 2020, Northern Light Acadia Hospital saw a nearly 50% spike in the number of consults it provided to other emergency departments. Because of an editing error, the online version of this piece previously included the wrong date for that spike.