Health & Medicine

New respite center opens for people in a mental health crisis

George Ehrlick, a cheerful man who can talk up a storm, describes himself as “a manic depressive with a handful of OCDs.” He’s also an accomplished member of the local mental health community, appointed to a seat on the board of directors of TLCS, a nonprofit that Tuesday celebrated the grand opening of a new respite center for people in a mental health crisis.

The 24/7 Crisis Respite Center, located on the edge of tony Sierra Oaks, will welcome eight to 10 people for a maximum of 23 hours – just time enough to decompress, pull themselves together, get some guidance and then leave with a plan for their next steps. The center is designed for people who are experiencing crises and to keep them out of hospital emergency rooms and jails.

Though there are no beds (the property is not zoned for residential facilities), there are comfortable lounge chairs that tip back, and blankets will be available to make guests feel as cozy as possible. Though there is no plan to feed guests, there’s a kitchen with comfort foods like cereal and soups to tide them over.

The purpose of the Crisis Respite Center is to stabilize people by providing a safe place for them to recover well enough to grasp solutions and leave ready to take action. Each person who departs will do so with a folder from a counselor outlining resources to assist them – whether they be food banks, parenting classes or housing opportunities. The respite center is one of six established around Sacramento County to help individuals, families and children, older adults and ethnic communities. Funding comes from Proposition 63 mental health dollars, which are then threaded through the Sierra Health Foundation and its Respite Partnership Collaborative.

Approved by Sacramento County supervisors, the funding mechanism is an experiment designed to test whether providing public dollars to a third-party administrator – in this case, the Sierra Health Foundation – can ultimately speed up release of grants to the community.

Ehrlick, 65 and retired, had praise for the Crisis Respite Center, saying “the staff is awesome here. I can’t give them enough credit for helping people become self-reliant.”

He was one of dozens of celebrators packing the spotless, sparsely furnished facility to herald its opening. Because of safety concerns, officials asked that the address not be disclosed; clients arriving at the center will be referred by mental health professionals, law enforcement or hospital emergency room personnel. Vouchers for taxi services will be available for transportation in and out of the distinctive, tree-lined neighborhood not far from the American River.

Unlike some of the other programs run by TLCS, the Crisis Respite Center will not offer long-term, or even temporary, housing. Nor will it promise a full continuum of care. Its programs focus on helping people get back on their feet quickly with plans to manage whatever it is that’s behind their crises.

“We are not a homeless program. We will be connecting people with resources,” said Karen Brockopp, associate director for program services. “My hope is that people are going to leave with an attitude of, ‘You know what? I can do this.’ ”

The center will be open 24 hours a day and will be staffed by 12 mostly bilingual counselors who speak Spanish, Thai, Russian, Hmong, Laotian, Ukrainian and English. The on-site manager, Wayne Wright, is a U.S. veteran. Computers are available to help clients track down the resources they need to move forward.

Leslie Napper said she’s been using Sacramento County mental health resources for 10 years now. “I’ve been in the emergency room myself,” Napper said. “After you’ve been sitting in the hallways for days at a time, you come to the awareness that ‘This is not good for me.’

“Sometimes I just need someone to talk to, give me perspective and help me navigate the system,” Napper said. “It’s good to have someone who will listen.”

Brockopp said the goal is to build a compassionate environment where clients feel that what they have to say has merit. “We want people to feel listened to, to feel that they talked to someone ‘who gets me.’ ”

Sierra Health Foundation executive director Chet Hewitt said there’s no doubt the Sacramento region has a need for the new center, as well as the five existing ones. Hewitt estimated that 60 percent of people with a mental health challenge never get treatment. And in two-thirds of those cases, “It’s because of issues about stigma.”