Waiting in the Emergency Department


Delays in receiving care in busy emergency departments (ED) may exacerbate the distress experienced by people who have presented for mental health related concerns.

Many people we talked to explained how the design of the ED waiting room and clinical space can be isolating. Being left to wait for a long time before being attended to by health practitioners can be interpreted as a lack of care and a sign that a person’s distress and fears are not a priority. Staff can reassure people that their concerns are being taken seriously and demonstrate care by ensuring that they are seen by treating professionals as quickly as possible and updating them about when they can expect to be seen.

People also described how lengthy waits in a strange, uncomfortable, and often traumatising environment can be frightening when they are experiencing distress or have a history of trauma. Difficult thoughts, feelings and experiences may be exacerbated when witnessing other people’s life-threatening injuries. The frustrations of other patients or involvement of security guards or police can increase a person’s fears and perceived lack of safety. Working with people to find an appropriate space away from the general noise and busyness of the ED can help them to feel safe and comfortable while they are waiting to be attended to. However, it is important to first check with people what is best for them as being taken to an isolated room may be distressing for people who have experienced seclusion and/or restraint within mental health services.

Key points

  • Communicating to a person about when they can expect to be seen by treating professionals and notifying them of any delays can help to reassure them that their concerns are being taken seriously.
  • Finding a quiet and less stimulating space away from the busyness of the ED may help reduce the distress and fear a person might be experiencing. However, some people may find being taken to an isolated space retraumatising because of previous experience of seclusion and restraint. Working with the person to find an appropriate space can help them to feel safe.
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Emotional journeys through the emergency department