Kaiser patients speak out about lengthy waits for mental health therapy
Time and again, Jessica Held called Kaiser's mental health department in Santa Rosa pleading for help.
Feelings of severe anxiety and depression would weigh on her, but weren't yet at alarming heights. In those moments, she didn't want to harm herself or others, although she strongly believed she needed extra support from someone — anyone — available to see her at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Santa Rosa.
But she never received the immediate help she desired.
Held said she was consistently told there wasn't anyone available for individual therapy for at least a month because she wasn't in a crisis situation, despite being a Kaiser patient since 2001. Instead, Kaiser offered to place her in group therapy.
Held's story and others like it received new attention this week as Kaiser mental health workers staged a five-day statewide strike against the nonprofit health care system. The National Union of Healthcare Workers, which represents psychologists, therapists and clinical social workers, ended their strike on Friday.
Union members say patients must wait four to six weeks, on average, for individual therapy appointments because Kaiser has not hired enough mental health workers to properly treat its members. Many who need individual care are funneled into group therapy, union members say.
Michelle Gaskill-Hames, chief nurse executive for Kaiser Permanente Northern California, said the HMO is working aggressively to hire therapists, accelerate care for patients who need it most urgently and improve mental health services for patients across its system.
Held, 42, said being seen and heard is key to her recovery. She said she has struggled with depression, anxiety, suicide attempts and post-traumatic stress disorder her entire life. Without the option to see a therapist on a regular basis, the Kenwood woman's condition quickly starts to decline.
And climbing out of the hole of consuming depression gets harder each time, she said.
'You either become dead or more depressed in this system,' Held said. 'I lost everything going through this experience and now I have nothing else to lose. Now, I am unafraid to speak out.'
Patients living across the North Bay who said they experienced lengthy waits to see a therapist and were unsatisfied with their treatment at Kaiser contacted The Press Democrat this week to share their stories, in the hopes that others will know they are not alone in their fight for better health care.
A horrible, traumatic experience
Heather Myers watched as a deputy put her 15-year-old daughter in handcuffs and drove her to the hospital after the teen threatened to kill herself.
The Santa Rosa woman followed the patrol car to Kaiser medical center and sat in horror as her daughter was placed in a sterile, bare room, with nothing except a bed, and her hands still in cuffs.
It was heartbreaking, she said.
'My daughter is not a bad child. She is beautiful and a great human being. She just suffers from depression, which is in your brain and it needs to heal just like if you have a broken knee,' Myers said.
Myers had no options except to wait until her daughter was transferred to another hospital for intensive psychiatric help. Like many facilities, Kaiser typically transfers patients placed into psychiatric care involuntarily because they are a danger to themselves or others — known as a 5150 hold. Most are sent to centers equipped to handle acute crisis situations, Kaiser officials said.
This was a situation Myers and her daughter were to experience at least two more times.
For years Myers advocated that her daughter receive individual treatment at Kaiser, but said her family experienced constant frustration as they were shuffled from one group therapy program to the next.
Myers filed complaints with Kaiser seeking to require that her daughter be seen for individual therapy on a weekly basis, but said she was routinely denied.
'I asked for her to have one-on-one therapy so she could be comfortable with the same person, so they could figure out what was going on. But she never had that, never,' Myers said. 'When your child says to you that they want to kill themselves, you just want to fix them because you'll do anything to not have them die.'
Myers and her two children are insured by Kaiser because that is the plan offered by her husband's employer. But when her youngest son began struggling with Tourette's syndrome and anxiety years ago, Myers did not even bother with Kaiser. She sought outside treatment and paid out of pocket, and said that it worked.
Eventually, Myers stopped taking her daughter to Kaiser and instead has helped her pay for private treatment.