By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Community and Alabama Department of Mental Health leaders gathered Wednesday to get their first look at one of the three new mental health crisis centers going up across Alabama.
These facilities will provide 24/7 care for anyone experiencing an acute mental health crisis and are meant to ease the burden on local emergency rooms and jails that have become the main receivers of individuals in crisis. The other facilities will soon open in Mobile and Huntsville. There are also plans to open a fourth in the Birmingham/Tuscaloosa area.
The crisis centers were made possible after the Alabama Legislature and Gov. Kay Ivey made it a priority in 2020 and appropriated $18 million for their creation.
Mental Health Commissioner Kim Boswell said the department has hurried to get the new facilities up and running as fast as possible to work with the adjoining community diversion programs.
“Every day someone is having a mental health crisis and we all felt such a sense of urgency in getting these services out there because they are so important for people,” Boswell said.
The Montgomery facility is not fully complete but services are already being offered by the Montgomery Area Mental Health Authority and its after-hour mobile crisis team. Authority Executive Director Donna Leslie explained that the crisis facility will be able to provide 24/7 care with trained professionals and peer support specialists who can guide them throughout the whole process.
“We’re going to make sure they get the right care, whether or not it’s outpatient services, housing, if they need to be committed, we’re going to be sure we facilitate that in a way that gives them dignity and respect,” Leslie said.
Community involvement and support was evident at Wednesday’s open house with Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed and other leaders in attendance. Reed spoke briefly about the community’s enthusiasm to help promote initiatives like this one.
“I think right now we are very well positioned to capitalize on both city and county support for this endeavor,” Reed said. “We recognize that we need to treat mental illness as an illness not as anything other than that.”
Leaders from Baptist Hospital and Jackson Hospital also spoke about how the new diversion facility will help with emergency room overcrowding and overall care for community members.
The Montgomery crisis center will officially be opened and ready to take patients in December with 10 temporary observation beds and 16 extended observation beds.
Services are already underway though with the MAMHA’s after-hours mobile crisis team which provides face-to-face interventions with people who are facing crisis wherever they are.
The mobile team partners with the Montgomery Police Department’s Crisis Intervention Team to offer on-the-spot care and referrals to hospitals or the least restrictive care possible.
“This is another tool, a very good tool, that we’re going to be able to use to keep our people who need help from going to jail,” said Lt. Dwight Johnson, who leads the MPD’s Critical Intervention Team.
Since May, the mobile crisis team said it has diverted 24 individuals from emergency rooms or possible arrests in the Montgomery area.
Boswell said a challenge they are facing now and expect to continue to see for all three of their crisis centers is finding enough workforce to staff them.
Leslie also mentioned staffing as being a challenge for the Montgomery facility. She said the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has been a major complication as well.
“COVID touches everything,” Leslie said. “From finding beds if we need them, to being able to get medical care because the hospitals are so full right now with COVID patients, supplies for the building, staffing, it really touches every aspect of what we’re doing right now.”