A substance abuse and mental health crisis center is on track to open in Jacksonville later this year.
“There are crisis centers in our region – there’s one in Wilmington, one in Raleigh” said Sheri Slater, assistant county manager for Onslow County. “But not locally, not close enough for a citizen to get there on their own.”
It’s been about six years since Onslow County has had a 24-hour facility where people suffering from mental health or substance abuse crises could receive immediate inpatient care, Slater said. This absence has placed a burden on other community resources and on those who desperately need help through a crisis, she said.
“We’re spending a lot of tax dollars, one way or the other, taking care of these folks,” Slater said. “Sometimes, that’s in law enforcement – in the time it takes them to drive out of town and take them and come back. Sometimes, it’s in the emergency department. They’re spending hours and hours in the emergency department waiting for a bed in a crisis center in a neighboring community.”
Last spring, local lawmakers established a mental health task force to begin working on plans to open a crisis center for patients who lack insurance, are underinsured or rely on state-funded plans, said Slater, who serves as liaison for the task force. “As we’ve moved forward, we’ve had other partners join, such as Onslow Memorial Hospital,” Slater said. “Carteret County commissioners have joined us, as well as Carteret Health Care.”
So far, the task force has secured a $2 million state grant to cover the costs to renovate a county-owned building, located at 215 Memorial Dr., which would house the new crisis center. After construction is complete, the task force will begin accepting bids from mental health service providers, Slater said. The task force is aiming to open the center in the fall, she said.
The 16-bed center’s estimated annual operating cost is roughly $1.7 million, she said. But revenues from insurance would only cover about a third of that cost, leaving a $1.1 million shortfall, Slater said.
“There has to be another way to come up with the funds,” Slater said. “In this case our community came together and said, ‘We believe this is important. We’re going to make this happen.’”
In a draft memorandum of understanding, the city of Jacksonville, along with Carteret and Onslow Counties, agreed to contribute a combined $775,000 annually over the next two years. Onslow Memorial Hospital and Carteret Health Care are also expected to help fund the center, Slater said. All of these stakeholders will serve on an oversight committee to monitor the center after it opens later this year.
“It really has been a community-wide movement to make sure that we’re able to take care of the needs of our citizens,” Slater said.
In 2014, suicide was the fifth leading cause of death in Onslow County, a report from the State Center for Health Statistics reveals. Suicide remains a problem for the community, Slater said.
“Any suicide is too many. And we definitely have more than a few in our community,” she said. “This crisis center would also be able to serve someone who’s in that situation.”
In 2016, Jacksonville had the 12th highest opioid abuse rate in the country, a report from Castlight Health reveals. Slater said she hopes the crisis center would make a “positive impact” on the opioid problem.
“The number of citizens impacted by opioid abuse and opioid-related deaths is staggering. And it’s very disturbing,” Slater said. “So, we as a community have to take so many different angles to address the opioid epidemic. This crisis center is just one thing.”
Patients suffering from a mental health or substance abuse crisis could stay at the crisis center for up to two weeks before they’re referred to outpatient or inpatient treatment elsewhere, Slater said.
With the absence of a crisis center, law enforcement officers, who are often the first to respond to crises, have had to spend more time supervising people with mental health emergencies and less time on patrol. In 2016, Jacksonville city police officers spent 16,000 hours helping residents through mental health crises, costing the department about $1 million, said Richard Woodruff, city manager, at a joint meeting between county commissioners and city councilmembers last year.
At that same meeting, Mike Yaniero, the city’s police chief, told local lawmakers that a local crisis center would make it much easier for police officers to do their jobs. “When I first got here, we had a mental health facility. Officers were able to transport these people that were in crisis directly to that center,” Yaniero said. “Now, they’re spending two, three, four hours trying to de-escalate the situation.”
Trillium Health Resources, which is the state-designated behavioral health and substance abuse managed care organization for 24 counties in Eastern North Carolina, has drafted a request for service provider proposals, which the company would like to release in the coming months, said David Tart, who serves as Trillium’s project manager for the crisis center. Any provider operating the facility must offer medically managed detoxification and accept patients who pose a risk of harm to others or themselves, Tart said.
“This should serve as an additional resource, an alternative to hospitalization, for people who are in that situation or are experiencing any mental health or substance use crisis,” he said.