Monday, March 11, 2013

"Girls" Tackles OCD: What I Hope IS NOT Happening In Our Emergency Departments

This afternoon I had the pleasure of having some downtime- so I used it to catch up on the three recent "Girls" episodes sitting on my DVR.  Having avoided spoilers, I was surprised and saddened to see Hannah (Lena Dunham) being consumed by Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).  We learn that she had a serious bout with the condition once before- in high school.  It was so serious that she sought professional help and medication at that time.  Flash forward to her post-college life and we see her plagued again...perhaps triggered by the stress of a recent break-up and a looming book deadline.

While there are several disturbing issues in the most recent episode "On All Fours" (you can see the comments in Alan Sepinwall's review for those details), I want to focus specifically on Hannah's trip to the local emergency department (ED).

I was very upset watching this scene and I'll tell you why:

We know that emergency room providers are key gatekeepers for those who are suicidal and/or suffering from mental illness.  Research tells us that 1 in 10 suicides are by people seen in an emergency department within 2 months of dying.  Acknowledging the importance of this gatekeeper role, leadership organizations in suicide prevention have created a variety of toolkits and resources to educate and train emergency department personnel to identify patient warning signs and assess their risk.

In "On All Fours", Hannah visits the ED after obsessively sticking a Q-tip in her ear, getting it stuck, and experiencing pain.  After lying to her parents by saying she has "12-15 good friends" to accompany her to the ED, she goes alone.  The scene opens with the doctor telling her, "Well, you must be feeling pretty silly."

As the doctor examines her injured ear, Hannah says:

"I've just been having a little trouble with my mental state."
"I have a lot of anxiety and I didn't think stress was affecting me but it actually is."
"I'm not saying this was an accident, but I was just trying to clean myself out."

At no point does the doctor respond to any of these statements.  He is all business, telling her to follow-up with a specialist if she is still experiencing pain in a few days.  As Hannah lays down so he can put antibiotic drops in her ear, she pleads with him to look at her other ear.  He snaps at her "there is nothing wrong with the other one."  Hannah cries on the bed because it (the drops? her situation?) hurts so bad.

He discharges her and she walks home alone.  In just a t-shirt and no pants.

Now I'm not saying that Hannah was acutely suicidal or verbalized such a threat in the ED.  However, I am saying that she made several clear statements about her mental health that should have been treated with concern and respect by a competent medical provider.  Her demeanor and her appearance deserved a kind ear, a social worker's visit, someone to ask if she was all right.

These recent episodes have been applauded for their accurate portrayal of OCD.  I hope that a future episode will show a portrayal of a caring and skilled provider using the public health prevention and education tools that are available to assist someone in desperate need of help.

For any readers that may need help:


  1. I recently heard from an ED nurse who shared how difficult it was for her to accurately do a suicide or mental health assessment with one patient in particular, who unfortunately died by suicide not long after meeting with this nurse. She felt underprepared for assessing mental status.

    My impression is, at least in the hospital where I work, mental health is the realm of psychiatry and social work, definitely not ED MDs (yes, psychiatrists are MDs, too, but it's definitely seen differently). There is interest in better equipping the ED as a whole to respond to patients who present with mental health concerns, but it is a very difficult environment in which to make change.

    I (always) wonder if a show like this can lead to more of a conversation in the public sphere about how to do better.

  2. Elana,
    Thank you so much for the thoughtful comment and sharing the perspective of the ED nurse at your hospital. What struck me about what you wrote is how physical health & mental health are often still very divided (i.e., "mental health is the realm of psychiatry and social work, definitely not ED MDs").

    I'd love to hear more thoughts from readers regarding strategies for integration. What can we do for the ED nurse at your hospital so that she does not feel unprepared to assess the next patient?

    Thanks again for sharing,