County’s 20,000-square-foot crisis and recovery center nearing completion; it aims to give people in crisis ‘room to breathe’

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

The Treatment and Recovery Center, located on the Treatment and Recovery Campus of Douglas County at 1000 W. Second St., is pictured on Friday, April 15, 2022.

When patients start coming to Douglas County’s new behavioral health crisis center, Dr. George Thompson hopes they’ll feel a little better just by walking through the doors.

That’s because the 20,000-square-foot crisis and recovery center has a spacious, open waiting room right at the entrance that Thompson said was designed to feel “light and airy.” It might not seem like a significant detail at first, but Thompson, the executive director and medical director of the center, said it matters a lot for people who are going through a mental health crisis and need a place to decompress.

“Because you know how whenever people are in crisis, you have that closed-in feeling, where it doesn’t feel like you have much room to breathe, much room to move?” Thompson said. “Here, you should have more physical signs that there’s more room to breathe and move around, and we hope to do that emotionally, psychologically, as well.”

That extra space has been several years in the making. The crisis and recovery center is in its final stages of construction and is expected to open in a few months, but the complex it’s part of — the roughly $10 million Treatment and Recovery Campus of Douglas County — has been under construction since 2019. When the center opens, it will join the two other facilities on the campus that are already up and running: a group housing facility called Transitions, which houses and provides support services to those recovering from behavioral health issues for up to a year; and The Cottages at Green Lake, a group of 10 one-bedroom housing units that provide permanent housing and support services to residents with behavioral health issues. Transitions opened at full capacity midway through 2021, and The Cottages opened shortly after that.

This past week, Thompson and some of the center’s other leaders led the Journal-World on a tour of the new facility, which they say will have a big impact not just on patients, but on the local hospital and law enforcement as well.

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Aside from the waiting room, one of the first things patients will see near the main entrance is a short hallway with six consultation rooms, called the “access center.” Luke Meier, the center’s clinical manager, is in charge of the access center, and he said it’s the first step in determining where someone will go when they arrive seeking help.

Since it’s located right off the main entrance, Thompson said the access center will be open to anyone who walks into the building from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays and noon to 4 p.m. on Saturdays.

But not all crises happen during those hours, and not all crises are the same. Some people might be suffering from an “acute crisis” — a situation in which a person is mentally volatile or suicidal, for example — and Thompson said there’s an entrance specifically for these types of crises with 24-hour access at the side of the building. It’s designed to be a safer way to get these patients checked in than the main lobby.

At the 24-hour entrance, a staff member can see and talk with the patient via a video doorbell and determine whether the patient is calm or agitated. Then, the staff can better assess how many people it will take to help get the patient safely inside. Once they’re buzzed in, they’ll stop at an intake room for an assessment and to determine their next steps at the facility.

In some cases, it doesn’t take long to calm down, Thompson said.

“Our goal is to help them get calmed down really fast and then once they get calmed down, then make a plan for how they return to the community,” Thompson said. “A number of people that come into the access center will be able to leave from there.”

But not everyone will be ready to leave right away. For those who aren’t ready yet, the center has two areas where patients can stay for a longer period of time: a 23-hour observation room and a 72-hour stabilization unit.

Thompson said those who are checked in can stay in the observation room for anywhere from two hours to 23 hours; the “23-hour” naming refers to Medicaid rules mandating the length of stay for such care.

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

The 23-hour observation room is bare for now, but it’ll eventually be filled with 16 recliners where people can sit and get themselves together.

Eventually, the observation room will be filled with recliners. There’s also a pair of private rooms for those who may still feel too agitated to sit in the main space; restrooms; and small offices around the periphery of the room where patients can speak with therapists and nurse practitioners. Thompson said the space is meant to provide a chance for people to collect themselves.

The stabilization area, meanwhile, is for patients who need more than a day to calm down during a crisis. Its main space will eventually be furnished with tables and chairs, and it is encircled by eight smaller rooms, each of which will house two beds for patients to stay overnight.

Thompson said this space will make it so people can receive treatment for more serious crises without having to leave Lawrence.

“Again, it’s an attempt to have people stay in the community and not go to a hospital,” Thompson said. “There’s no psychiatric hospital in Lawrence; you have to go to Topeka or you have to go to Kansas City.”

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

The new crisis center’s stabilization room has many doors that lead to smaller rooms with beds. At right is Dr. George Thompson, the executive director and medical director of the center.

The observation and stabilization rooms are connected by a room with windows that look into both spaces, where the center’s staff can be stationed. Near these rooms, there are showers, a laundry room and a storage space for patients’ belongings, plus a kitchen space where food prepared at the nearby LMH Health hospital will be delivered. There’s also a courtyard at the rear of the building, which Thompson said is another example of a space meant to provide some fresh air and room to think and move around.

Thompson also said the facility is equipped to handle any level of behavioral health emergency — and that includes patients who are especially aggressive or agitated. He said the facility has a pair of “recovery rooms” for these situations, with an inch and a half of padding on the floor and walls for patients’ safety.

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

A pair of recovery rooms, with an inch and a half of padding on the floor and walls for patients’ safety, will allow the center to accept patients who may be especially aggressive or agitated and need some time to calm down.

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Along with serving as the main after-hours entrance, the 24-hour entrance is also the door where ambulances or law enforcement officers will drop patients off, Thompson said. But the officers won’t play much of a role in getting patients checked in — Thompson said that most of the time, officers would be at the facility for 10 minutes or less, and the intake area would be as far into the building as they would go.

Thompson said that’s important, because part of the impetus for building the crisis center was to lessen the likelihood of people ending up in jail because of a behavioral health crisis.

The Treatment and Recovery Campus was funded in part by a quarter-cent sales tax that voters overwhelmingly approved in late 2018. It was the second time that year that the sales tax question — Proposition 1 — appeared on a Douglas County ballot. The first version of Proposition 1 failed because it also asked voters to approve a $44 million addition to the county jail.

Because of that vote a few years ago, Thompson said it was important for the facility to do its part to avoid unnecessarily sending people to jail.

“One of our main goals is to serve law enforcement, and to reduce the number of people in jail,” Thompson said. “… If they can come here to a place that’s specifically designed for the kinds of things that they’re addressing, they’ll want to come here rather than to the jail or to the emergency room.”

But Thompson said the project wouldn’t just lessen the load on the jail — it would also relieve some pressure at the hospital, LMH Health.

He said the observation room with the recliners would play a big part in that. People who would have to stay in the observation room are the same group that, currently, would be dropped off at the jail or emergency room, he said.

The difference, Thompson said, is that about 65% of people who stay in similar observation spaces at other crisis centers return to their community straight from there.

“When people come in that are in crisis and you give them a little bit of time, something you don’t always get over at the (emergency room), when you get a little bit of time all of a sudden things start to settle a little bit,” added Meier, the clinical manager. “You can reduce crises just by having a safe place. You’re safe, you’re here, and within that 23 hours, I bet we can get people out of here a lot quicker than the (emergency room).”

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

The 23-hour observation room is bare for now, but it’ll eventually be filled with 16 recliners where people can sit and get themselves together.

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Construction on the building is nearly complete; only a few small items still need to be completed, and the wait is mostly due to supply chain disruptions, Thompson said. The building is also unfurnished for the time being.

But when it’s all finished later this year, the center’s leaders said they’re excited for what it will provide to those in the community who need it.

“I believe that everyone should have access to quality care; it shouldn’t be dependent upon your ability, your family’s ability, to pay or your credit because the people who need these services the most have the hardest time being able to access them,” said Santana White, the center’s director of operations. “So coming into a facility like this, where the whole goal is to offer services to people that need it the most, is definitely a deep part of my heart.”

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

From left to right, clinical manager Luke Meier; manager of executive administration Sarah Robertson; director of operations Santana White; and executive director Dr. George Thompson are pictured outside the Treatment and Recovery Center Friday, April 15, 2022.

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

An outdoor space for clients to use is located at the rear of the building.