America’s mental health treatment system is broken. Those most in need struggle to find care, frequently ending up homeless, victimized or incarcerated. Even bedrock aspects of the system are now completely dysfunctional. The crisis-level shortage of psychiatric treatment beds is a prime example — and one that has tragic consequences. 

One in 30 American adults — 8.3 million people — experiences severe and persistent mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or severe bipolar disorder. On any given day, 40 percent go untreated. 
In a functional system, these individuals would receive timely and effective treatment long before they are critically ill, as we expect for other diseases. 

Unfortunately, such a system of mental health care does not exist in the United States. Even more cruelly, severe psychiatric diseases often render those most in need of care unable to accept treatment, even when it is available. Such individuals typically require intensive services in a hospital — the exact services that our system most frequently fails to provide. 

The number of state hospital beds in the United States has plummeted, decreasing almost 97 percent from 1955 to the current lowest level on record. 

Falling short

No state in the country has the minimum of 50 beds per 100,000 people necessary to provide adequate treatment for individuals with severe mental illness. Not one. 

Even after adding the treatment beds at our country’s private hospitals, the number of beds per capita remains shamefully low. 

This bed shortage has set off a domino effect of unmet need from coast to coast.

First responders drown in mental health calls. Emergency rooms grow overcrowded with people in the throes of psychosis. Chronic homelessness plagues our cities large and small. 

Meanwhile, the most acutely ill individuals suffer. Some become violent or, more often, the victims of violence. As their conditions deteriorate, their families and caregivers buckle under the stress. 

Many people with severe mental illness are criminalized — jailed merely for being ill. At least 10 times more people with severe mental illness are in prisons and jails than in state mental hospitals, a circumstance widely attributed to the lack of available treatment beds. 

A tragic end

Too many of these tormented individuals ultimately take their own lives. 

The psychiatric bed shortage crisis affects us all, and its disastrous consequences worsen with neglect. It is time for policymakers to get serious about making inpatient beds more available and accessible. We must stop dooming people experiencing severe mental illness to needless suffering. We should give them a bed instead.