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Community solution on mental health was born from crisis

Mary Ann Bernard speaks out at a 2012 Sacramento County Mental Health Board hearing. The county closed its crisis center in 2009, forcing some patients to seek help in emergency rooms.
Mary Ann Bernard speaks out at a 2012 Sacramento County Mental Health Board hearing. The county closed its crisis center in 2009, forcing some patients to seek help in emergency rooms. Sacramento Bee file

The hospital emergency room is where people go for mental health crises, such as severe anxiety, panic attacks and even suicidal thoughts. But it shouldn’t be.

After Sacramento County’s crisis unit closed in 2009 because of budget cuts, the number of patients treated and released for mental health issues increased fourfold. Hospitals don’t often have the space or the staff to help people in a mental health crisis, and the entire emergency room experience can be traumatic. This is not only ineffective, it is also the most costly way to provide mental health services.

A recent study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration showed that significant cost savings can result from keeping these patients out of emergency rooms and in community-based services, a return of $2.16 for every $1 invested.

In November 2010, Sacramento County’s Division of Behavioral Health Services conducted comprehensive community planning to find alternatives to hospitalization. One result was a proposal to fund efforts in neighborhoods or homelike settings for those who need assistance before they experience a mental health crisis. From this idea, the Respite Partnership Collaborative was born.

It is a public-private partnership of the county, Sierra Health Foundation Center for Health Program Management and the community at large. Through state funding, several new approaches have been launched, including 11 programs to provide options for consumers, family members and caregivers experiencing mental health crises.

The TLCS 24/7 Mental Health Crisis Respite Center (916-737-7483) is one of these programs, which attempts to treat people in crisis with increased dignity and respect by providing counseling and rest in a safe, secure location. The program is designed to offer up to 23 hours of respite care for any county resident older than 18 who is struggling with an urgent mental health crisis but does not require medical attention. This service is free to everyone, and completely voluntary. If transportation is a challenge, the staff helps with that, too.

One of the many things that make Sacramento County great is the collaborative nature of the community. We saw the problem at emergency rooms, and in response to this health crisis, we worked together to develop a creative solution.

Chet P. Hewitt is president and CEO of the Sierra Health Foundation. Michael Lazar is executive director of TLCS Inc.

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