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Social Workers in Emergency Rooms: An Idea Long Overdue
Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.: Wed, Sep 17th 2014
Have you ever been to an emergency room, either for yourself or someone you love? Chances are you witnessed some degree of chaos, regardless of where you live. Emergency rooms are inherently stressful due to long waiting times and overworked hospital staff. Layer that stress on top of the individual anxieties experienced by each patient with his or her own story, and the pressure can be difficult to bear.
Some of the hardest cases in emergency rooms are the results of violence. Particularly in cities like Chicago, shooting victims are filling up emergency rooms at an alarming rate. If their lives can be saved and physical wounds can be healed, these victims often return to their neighborhoods physically well, but mentally scarred.
That's where emergency room social workers come into play.
In a recent article in the Chicago Tribune, I learned that some area hospitals are embedding social workers into their emergency rooms to provide mental health treatment immediately after a trauma. This real-time supportive care has proven beneficial for victims of violence who will need to learn to function again in their own neighborhoods, which oftentimes are where they were shot.
Social workers in these positions make rounds with the goal of treating the stress and anxiety that is often a by-product of urban violence. Sometimes, they find evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder among their patients. In fact, one Chicago hospital recently surveyed its patients and found that gunshot victims were more likely than those who experienced other kinds of trauma, such as accidents, to be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
I applaud these hospitals for being so proactive and for recognizing that the sooner patients are counseled after a trauma, the better their chances for coping successfully in the days, weeks, and months ahead. Patients who are counseled while still in the emergency room can be educated about symptoms they might experience, how to cope with them, and how to reach out for help if problems persist. Patients who have a good experience with mental health treatment directly after a trauma might be more likely to seek out treatment later on than those who do not receive immediate help and who may harbor skepticism or stigma about mental health treatment. Social workers also can refer patients to services upon their discharge from the hospital to ensure continuity of care.
The idea of placing social workers in the emergency room environment to provide trauma-based care is long overdue. Does your hospital include social workers among its emergency room staff?
Sweeney, A. (September 2, 2014). Social workers join the ER team: Hospitals enlist help to treat mental wounds left by acts of violence. Chicago Tribune (Kindle edition).