Community invited to help plan crisis intervention center

Construction equipment sits idle at the site of the former Lawrence VFW, 138 Alabama St., Monday, Feb. 1, 2016. Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center has designated the site as the home of a proposed Douglas County crisis intervention center.

On a recent sunny afternoon, an eagle could be seen soaring from the Kansas River to the open sky above the site Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center has designated as the home of the proposed crisis intervention center.

From that site, the workday hustle and bustle of Lawrence could be distinguished only as a low background hum, easily washed away by the laughter of a couple walking two dogs in the Sandra J. Shaw Community Health Park.

It’s no accident the site north of Second Street from the Douglas County Community Health Department has been selected to be the home of the proposed crisis intervention center. Its park-like setting will aid in the therapy of its future patients, said Bert Nash CEO David Johnson.

“When we acquired that property, we donated more than half for the health park,” he said. “I often see staff out there walking with children. It’s become a very therapeutic spot.”

It will be the job of Treanor Architects to make the best use of that environment in the design of the crisis intervention center. Although the design process has just started, Treanor Architects President Dan Rowe said he anticipated the plan would feature plentiful access to natural light and fresh air.

“That site should lend itself very much to that,” he said. “It’s a calming site.”

If Johnson and Rowe agree on that aspect of the center’s design, there is much about its function and design that remains undetermined. To help put those pieces together, the community will be invited to participate in public input gatherings called charrettes on Feb. 9 and Feb 10 at the Bert Nash center, 200 Maine St.

What is known is that the crisis intervention center is meant to fill a gap in the continuum of mental health care in Douglas County.

Right now, Bert Nash provides a variety of outpatient services that touch about 5,000 county residents annually, Johnson said. The wide range of services includes such things as individual and group therapies, case management and supported educational, employment and housing programs.

“Each day, we work with about 350 people,” Johnson said. “We see from 10 to 12 new people every day.”

Bert Nash has recliners in which clients in crisis can relax during regular hours, but has nothing available for overnight stays. Finding available beds for those clients in need of extended care is a difficult task, one that has only become harder with the federal government’s decision to cut off Medicare payments to Osawatomie State Hospital in December.

“The big problem is there are no beds available,” Johnson said. “The problem with Osawatomie is they have no room. Cushing Hospital in Leavenworth closed its 20-bed unit in 2014. This last year, a (Shawnee) hospital decided it would no longer accept Medicaid patients. Hospitals won’t take the uninsured, or at least don’t want to, so it’s a great need.”

The crisis intervention center would provide at least 16 licensed beds where county residents could get extended care and recover to the point they could return home and take advantage of outpatient services, Johnson said. Some patients might reach that point after a stay of one to three nights while others may need as long as three weeks, he said.

Those overnight stays would not be the only void the center would fill. Mental-health emergencies don’t always occur on Bert Nash’s 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekday schedule, Johnson said. The crisis intervention center would provide a place for those seeking after-hours mental-health care.

The crisis intervention center “absolutely” would have to accommodate those in substance abuse crises, although that was another program for which the details needed to be worked out, Johnson said.

Ties to jail expansion

No financing mechanism has yet been proposed, and a price tag for the facility hasn’t yet been determined. It is probable the crisis intervention center will be part of a package that includes an expansion of the Douglas County Jail. County officials have provided a rough estimate of $30 million for the jail expansion.

At a town hall meeting Monday on the jail expansion, Douglas County commissioners restated their support for linking the two projects they see as county needs and responsibilities. The County Commission has entered into a memorandum of understanding with Bert Nash to fund construction of the crisis intervention center on the site the agency has made available.

At the town hall meeting, county officials and stakeholders who have aided in the 16-month effort to address needs at the jail and enhanced treatment options for mentally ill residents spoke of the “three-pronged approach to mental health” that has emerged from that effort. Those prongs include the crisis intervention center, upgraded mental health facilities at an expanded county jail and a mental-health court.

Under the three-pronged approach, violent inmates with mental illness or those thought to be a flight risk would continue to be housed at the county jail, albeit in a new and larger “pod” designed to take advantage of the calming influences of fresh air and natural light.

It would be the purpose of the mental-health court to intercede in select cases to make determinations on who should be detained in the county jail and who should be eligible for alternate treatment options, such as the crisis intervention center. Seemingly violent actions or other behaviors of individuals in crisis are often misinterpreted, Johnson said.

“They could be having a reaction to medication or any number of issues,” he said.

Kansas University social welfare professor Margaret Severson said at Monday’s town hall meeting she was among those working with Douglas County District Court Judge Sally Pokorny to establish the mental-health court.

Because of that safeguard, Douglas County Sheriff Ken McGovern said he did not yet know whether his office would place an officer in the crisis center.

The community is encouraged to help supply answers to the unanswered questions at the Feb. 9 and Feb. 10 charrettes. Rowe said that from noon to 7 or 8 p.m. Feb. 9, community members would be invited to visit the Bert Nash center to share ideas for the crisis center. Stations would be set up with materials allowing community members to draw concepts they have in mind, find examples on available computers to recommend and/or explain ideas in writing, he said. That process would continue through the morning of Feb. 10.

At a noon luncheon Feb. 10, all interested parties will be invited to a discussion that would look to find trends and consensus from the ideas shared, Rowe said.

“It’s simply a way to gather the community together to understand the concerns and involve them in the architecture,” he said. “If you have a big concern, you should express it.

There are a lot of people out there with really great ideas.”