New non-emergency mental health facility 'needed for a long time' opens in SLO

A new $1.2 million facility three years in the making is set to open Sunday to serve people before their mental health crisis reaches the level of an emergency.

The facility comes on line as San Luis Obispo County continues to expand its behavioral health services.

County Health officials expect the new facility to relieve strain on the county's already in-demand 16-bed in-patient psychiatric health facility (PHF), which has recently come under fire from Sheriff Ian Parkinson for, he says, refusing to admit a mentally ill man who died in County Jail last year.

While the PHF is where patients may be held involuntarily for up to 72 hours if they are a danger to themselves and others, the voluntary, adults-only Crisis Stabilization Unit (CSU) will take people who may be suffering severe depression or another very serious mental health crisis but are not considered a violent threat. County officials expect the facility to be able to treat a person, calm them, connect them with a therapist or find them outside placement, for up to 24 hours.

"It's something we've needed for a long time," said Judy Vick, Division Manager of SLO County Behavioral Health Department.

The project has been in the works since 2015, when the county applied for a grant from the California Health Facility Authority and received roughly $971,000 for the facility, which includes funds from the Mental Health Services Act, said Frank Warren, Division Manager for Prevention and Outreach for Behavioral Health Services, who applied for the grant for the agency. The county chipped in an additional $300,000 to complete construction, Warren said.

Groundbreaking for the project took place in August and construction wrapped up in late December.

Though the facility is managed by the county, Behavioral Health is contracting day-to-day operations to Sierra Wellness Group, a Roseville-based mental health services provider.

The 2,130-square-foot facility features a main intake office, shower room, furnished patio, main lounge area with pull-out sofas and a television, laundry, lockers, kitchen, nurses reception area and two quiet rooms, private rooms in which patients can consult with private psychiatrists or family members.

While the facility is for patients with MediCal or no insurance, staff will help patients with private insurance find placement at an appropriate facility.

Because patients may be treated at the CSU for up to 24 hours, they'll have access to limited food service, including a "hefty amount of snacks," said Jessica Simpson, the CSU supervisor for Sierra Wellness Group. The idea, Simpson said, is to provide a warm space rather than a hospital setting.

Simpson said she expects the new facility to relieve demand on already strained local county services.

"The goal is to be full all the time," she said.

Similar facilities have opened in other California counties, but the need for a local crisis unit is dire, Warren said.

He pointed to a 2015 California Hospital Association analysis that found a county the size of San Luis Obispo County — with a population of 281,000 — should have about 141 psychiatric inpatient beds. SLO County meets roughly 11 percent of that need.

While roughly 28 percent of total admissions to the PHF in Fiscal Year 2014-15 were discharged within 23 hours, according to Behavioral Health statistics. Of that number, 65 percent were discharged to home or self-care plans. Warren said this indicates that a 23-hour CSU could be a more appropriate level of care for many individuals who are admitted to the PHF.

The facility is expected to cost $1.4 to $1.6 million annually to operate, according to Sierra Wellness Group. But Behavioral Health officials point to a 2014 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration report that found that when compared to emergency department use and inpatient psychiatric care, crisis stabilization returns $2.16 for every dollar invested.

The CSU will begin taking patients Easter Sunday.

Matt Fountain 781-7909, @mattfountain1

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