Development is nearly complete on a new facility in Savannah intended to help prevent the incarceration of people with mental health issues, according to a presentation delivered to the Chatham County Commission during its meeting Friday.
The new Chatham County Behavioral Health Crisis Center on East DeRenne Avenue will aim to provide a welcoming facility for treating anyone suffering from a mental health episode, alleviating the burden on local law enforcement agencies and hospital emergency rooms, according to Dr. Mark Johnson, the CEO of the Savannah-based Gateway Community Services Board.
"This is a free-standing psychiatric emergency room," Johnson told commissioners.
He noted that Gateway focuses on providing services for the uninsured and under-insured, but, "We are open to anybody who wants help."
Johnson said that the new mental health center is planned with a "living-room model of care" to include comfortable interior design that encourages group interaction, large common areas illuminated in natural light, and an exterior resembling a modern home rather than an institution.
The facility will accept walk-in patients and referrals from family members, medical professionals and law-enforcement officials who determine that a detainee would be better served at the center rather than in jail, Johnson said.
"The whole goal is to divert people with mental illness from the hospital emergency room and provide a jail-intercept resource for the nonviolent misdemeanor offenders who do have a mental illness," Johnson said, adding that the center’s staff will be trained "to treat people as a whole person, focus on them as human."
The County Commission has agreed to pay $700,000 annually as its contribution to operating the mental health facility, with the rest provided by state funding, donations and other partnerships, according to Johnson.
Once fully operational, the facility will feature six beds for incoming patients during an initial observation period lasting up to 23 hours, as well as a group-home facility with another 24 beds for individuals requiring longer-term care, with stays lasting an average of five to seven days, Johnson said.
According to Commissioner Helen Stone, a longtime supporter of the project, this facility will not only provide needed therapy for economically disadvantaged locals, but also alleviate the burden on Chatham’s jail staff who must often care for inmates with mental health issues despite lacking expertise in psychological treatment.
"The deputies out at the jail are really not trained for this," Stone said, noting that many inmates require medication to keep their mental health issues in check, but are often unable to articulate their needs to jail staff. "It can be a bit of a guessing game."
Chatham County Sheriff John Wilcher is also supportive of the new health facility, having repeatedly lamented the high recidivism rates common among inmates with psychological issues.
At the new facility, trained psychologists will be on hand around the clock to provide emergency treatment as needed, according to Johnson, and outpatient services also will be offered.
"We’re also going to be starting a psychology-training program," providing required experience for psychology students at the center, Johnson added.
Although the facility must still pass several inspections, Johnson expressed optimism that the center will be fully operational and open to the public June 24.
"You all have been the key," Johnson said to the commission. "Chatham County has been very visionary in sponsoring the safety net."