Lawrence Memorial Hospital plans to close its inpatient psychiatric unit Sept. 1, a move that will put additional strain on efforts to care for the city's mentally ill.
The decision was driven by the loss of three of the four psychiatrists who referred and treated patients in the program, said Janice Early-Weas, the hospital's director of community relations.
"This is not something we wanted to do," she said Monday. "Unfortunately, we have no choice."
The news stunned Lawrence advocates for the mentally ill.
"This'll be a loss to the community," said Charlie Ross, facilitator and president of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance of Douglas County.
After Sept. 1, patients who need inpatient psychiatric care will be referred -- or taken, in some cases -- to psychiatric units at hospitals in Topeka, Shawnee or Leavenworth.
Depending on their condition, some may be taken to Osawatomie State Hospital.
"We didn't want this to happen," said Dave Johnson, CEO at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center in Lawrence. "We're hoping it's a temporary thing."
Still, Johnson warned that efforts to recruit psychiatrists to Lawrence would be hampered by a short supply and the fact most prefer to work in outpatient rather inpatient settings.
"It's very difficult work," Johnson said of inpatient care.
Bert Nash does not offer inpatient care. Instead, it refers patients to other available facilities.
Patients often are taken to the hospital by police.
"This is just going to make our job that much tougher," said Lt. Dave Cobb, spokesman for the Lawrence Police Department. "And it'll just put that much more strain on our available resources because if you're talking about taking someone to Topeka or (Shawnee Mission), that means a minimum of two officers are going out of town, which means they won't be available in town.
"We'd much, much prefer to take them to LMH."
Also, going out of town for care makes recovery more difficult.
"That's the thing we hear from people who've gone and come back," said Marcia Epstein, director at Headquarters Counseling Center. "It's much harder when friends and family can't be there to lend support."
An LMH inpatient program that specializes in caring for senior citizens coping with mental illness will not be affected. The current 15-bed unit will be downsized to nine beds reserved for patients age 60 or older.
Currently, the combined units' average daily census is between seven and eight patients. The geriatric unit accounts for about 55 percent of the census.
"The problem we're up against is that without a sufficient number of psychiatrists, we can't continue providing psychiatric care," Early-Weas said.
Three of the unit's psychiatrists -- Sheldon Whitten-Vile, Estanislao Rimando and Joseph Douglas -- recently resigned from active practice due to relocation, poor health and increased demands posed by their outpatient caseloads, Early-Weas said.
The fourth, Dr. Elias Chediak, remains active but is not in a position to take on all of the crisis-unit patients by himself.
"This is totally out of our control," Early-Weas said.
Three years ago, an LMH plan to close the psychiatric unit proved controversial among advocates for the city's mentally ill. Hospital officials put off closing the unit by opening the geriatric unit, which generated enough revenue to sustain both, Early-Weas said.
Now, the crisis unit's financial health is fine.
"I think it's a real shame they're closing it," said Betty Visser, who's schizophrenic and is often invited to address psychology classes at Kansas University.