Your Turn: We can do much better on mental health

When a person living in Lawrence experiences a heart attack, a stroke, or a car wreck that leaves the person in critical condition, we call 911, the ambulance arrives and takes the person to the emergency department at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. The emergency department’s staff provides prompt and excellent treatment to keep the person alive.

If needed, the injured is passed on to a doctor who specializes in treating the injury or condition. If needed, the patient stays in the hospital until well enough to be released. If physical therapy is needed, the patient is connected with a physical therapist and receives that care.

How does this compare with the care provided to someone who’s experiencing a mental health crisis?

If it is during normal business hours, Monday through Friday, the person can visit our Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center. Bert Nash also has a phone number that can be called anytime, day or night.

But what if the crisis affects a person who’s living alone and unable to help himself or herself? Or someone whose illness is so severe that his or her loved ones can’t intervene? We call 911 and the police department is sent to help. They do their best, but they may have to use force to take the person in crisis to a safe environment. They have two choices: LMH emergency department or the Douglas County Jail. Neither facility is staffed with doctors trained to treat people who find themselves in mental health crises.

If your loved one had a car accident and were in critical condition, would you be content to have police take that person to a holding room until that person could be moved — hours or days later — to another community that had staff and resources to deal with the injuries?

Lawrence is truly blessed to have a Top 100 Hospital for the past four years running. LMH provides excellent care for our physical healing. And I thank God every day that we have a top-notch community mental health center. But we can do better.

The proposed Mental Health Crisis Center would meet this challenge. It would basically be an emergency department for mental illness emergencies, just like the LMH emergency department is for physical emergencies. It would be available 24/7 with trained staff and doctors.

In San Antonio, they call their crisis center a “Restoration Center.” It provides restoration services to both those with mental and/or substance abuse health issues. It has lowered the number of people in their emergency departments and jails.

To finance the Restoration Center, the hospitals, police departments, courts, county, city, and mental health center all collaborated, pooling the money they saved by reducing demand. These monies, in turn, are used to offset the center’s operational costs.

In Lawrence, if we can find $18 million to remodel a library that has since received national recognition for the architectural design, $25 million for the Rock Chalk Park, and have a nationally recognized, community-owned hospital, what is holding us back from a Mental Health Crisis Center?

Is it because we have to wait until we can include the proposed jail expansion with the crisis center in a combined public vote? If LMH builds a new addition to the hospital, it is done on its own merits. Why can’t the Mental Health Crisis Center and the jail expansion each stand on its own merits?

Lawrence, we can do better than this.

— Bill Wood is the chair of the NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Douglas County Leadership Team.