A ray of hope in the mental health crisis

When it comes to caring for the mentally ill in North Carolina, there’s been very little good news over the last few years. A 2001 attempt to radically reform the state’s mental health system has been, by nearly unanimous opinion, a disaster. It has wasted millions of dollars and created a system that has too little oversight of patient care, too few facilities, and too much opportunity for mismanagement at the local level.

The breadth of these problems, however, is exactly why a new psychiatric unit at Haywood Regional Medical Center that’s being praised by mental health professionals is so promising, and why it might be the model to start fixing some of what’s gone so wrong over the last several years.

The new 16-bed unit at HRMC opened in November and was paid for with a state grant that also funded another wing at another hospital. The hope was the regional units would reduce the waiting list for patients to get into a long-term bed at Broughton Hospital in Morganton. The Broughton facility is way overcrowded and has suffered its own woes. Besides, those in need of immediate psychiatric help can run into serious problems if they have to put off professional care. It became a very dangerous situation for patients when they could find no facility to check into when their problems needed medical attention.

The new unit at HRMC helps solve of these issues. For one, patients can get care closer to home, which allows more interaction with family members they trust and depend on. The new facility is run under a model that allows the patient to take part in the cure. The program allows patients to make choices about how to structure their day, similar to what life is like on the “outside,” where many of these patients will soon return to and begin taking care of themselves.

“It’s a support network that gives you the strength you don’t have outside,” a 20-year-old patient told The Smoky Mountain News.

The new center’s early success is worth noting. Doug Trantham, interim director of Smoky Mountain Mental Health, said the region has had its lowest transfer rate to Broughton in recent memory. Two other hospitals are looking at the HRMC model with an eye toward possibly replicating it. There’s also hope that the Balsam Adult Recovery Unit may re-open. It closed when the HRMC wing opened because there was only enough trained staff to operate one of the units. When that happens, there will be even more options for patients in Western North Carolina who are in need of residential mental health care.

We’ve got a long way to go before we solve the crisis confronting this state’s mental health system. But increasing the number of available local beds — and increasing the opportunity to receive the necessary treatment right here at home — is a good first step toward helping patients gain access to the kind of treatment they need.

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