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.

Myers said she was exhausted after years of frustration with Kaiser's mental health system. She feels that both she and Kaiser failed her daughter.

'After all those years with Kaiser, she never once had the same mental health person. So how could anyone ever figure out what was going on with her?' Myers said. 'She still fights with depression and can't get over it to this day.'

Kaiser, Myers said, did more harm than good.

'It was all just a horrible and traumatic experience,' she added.

'Worse than ever'

Charissa Teller is exhausted.

At 24, she struggles with depression, anxiety and possible bipolar disorder. She can't hold a job and rarely leaves her house in Redwood City.

Some days Teller can't get out of bed to shower or eat. Her thoughts often drift between the idea of suicide and what her father would think if he discovered her body.

But when she heard that Kaiser's mental health workers were striking last week, she said it felt like her feelings were validated for the first time.

Teller has experienced a range of emotions from years of navigating the mental health care system at Kaiser in San Mateo County.

As a teen, she self-harmed and was placed in an intensive outpatient program for the first time.

That was when her journey with Kaiser began.

'After that you are in and out and you see someone new once a month and you start to crumble,' Teller said.

She tried every new method they offered her — including group therapy and outpatient programs.

But she felt strongly that individual talk therapy on a weekly basis would serve her best.

Teller's requests went ignored, she said.

'You have to be extreme to get any attention and no one would ever think of any other option for me unless I was in front of them doing something extreme,' Teller said.

She is on her father's health care plan and cannot afford to pay for anything on her own. Teller said she struggles to this day to regularly see a therapist at Kaiser, and her hope in the system has faded.

Sometimes she'll even skip her appointment, she said, because after six weeks of coping alone Teller questions what one session of therapy will offer her.

'I just want answers so I can move forward and treat myself,' Teller said. 'Today, I am worse than ever.'

World-class program

Kaiser representative Gaskill-Hames said she could not discuss the specific experiences shared by Held, Myers and Teller, citing patient privacy. She said the health system's therapists spend time mapping out the best course of care for each individual patient, and that they are treated in a timely manner.

'Our care plans are developed to be very individualized, whether it's talk therapy, group sessions or a combination,' Gaskill-Hames said. 'The investments we've made have gone toward continuing to create a world-class mental health program.'

The HMO has gone on a hiring spree since 2013, when the California Department of Managed Health Care fined Kaiser $4 million after a routine survey flagged concerns about access to mental health care. State regulators pressured Kaiser to improve timely access to mental health services, better inform patients about available services and improve its monitoring and tracking of patient appointments.

'We have been hiring therapists and increasing our staff by 30 percent since 2015, even though there's a national shortage,' said Gaskill-Hames.

In Jessica Held's opinion, lives are still at risk.

'I believe that Kaiser's mental health patients are being neglected to death,' Held said. 'I choose to voice my personal story because I feel that we patients are being shamed into silence and I don't want any person to reach out for help and have that system fail them like it did me.'

You can reach Staff Writer Alexandria Bordas at 707-521-5337

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