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Charleston's mental health crisis center aims to divert people from jails, hospitals

Post & Courier - 12/4/2017

For more information or to make a referral, call the crisis center at 843-953-2390.

On a recent November afternoon at the Tri-County Crisis Stabilization Center, Summer Thomas Ezell relaxed while watching the movie “Spanglish” after a group therapy session. Across the room, a whiteboard outlined her and her fellow patients’ goals: happiness, family support, exercise, meditation.

Thomas Ezell, 39, sought help at the Charleston facility a week earlier following a clash with the homeowner she was living with as part of the Charleston Dorchester Mental Health Center’s home-share program, a service that helps adults with psychiatric disabilities transition into community households.

Electing to leave the home-share program and come to the 10-bed crisis facility rendered Thomas Ezell homeless, but it put her in a better state of mind. The center accepts patients at all hours and is aimed at diverting homeless adults and those with mental health or substance abuse issues from jail cells and hospital beds. There, Thomas Ezell got access to medication and counseling, as well as help seeking housing and employment.

“It’s therapeutic,” she said of the facility operated by the Charleston Dorchester Mental Health Center. “I talk when I want to get my problems out, my pain and my suffering off my chest.”

The crisis stabilization center reopened in June following an eight-year hiatus when an earlier iteration of the unit shut down in 2009.

It’s the only such center in the state thanks to $1.1 million in annual funding from the S.C. Department of Mental Health, the tri-county’s mental health centers, Medical University of South Carolina, Roper St. Francis and other contributors.

Mental health officials in the Upstate are eyeing similar programs. In Spartanburg, a behavioral health task force settled on a daytime “peer support living room” for mental health resources, slated to open in February, after replicating the tri-county model proved too costly.

Most patients arrive at the crisis unit because they’re suicidal, said Deborah Blalock, executive director of the Charleston Dorchester Mental Health Center. Patients are offered a bed, meals and a “rigorous” treatment program.

“The minute they walk in the door, the focus is what got you in here and what we can do to keep you out of jail, the hospital, the ER in the future,” Blalock said. “You’re not going to be sitting around in your bunny slippers all day. It’s gonna be hard.”

The small facility is housed on the second floor of the Charleston Center, a county-run substance abuse prevention and treatment service. Patients check in voluntarily and can be referred by emergency rooms, law enforcement and relatives. They can leave at any time. The average length of stay is 31/2 days, though patients can stay for up to two weeks.

The center’s reopening was part of the Charleston County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council’s initiative to reduce the jail’s population by 25 percent over three years.

In the first half of 2017, the CJCC found that more than 22 percent of bookings into the Charleston County jail were inmates who had been jailed three or more times in the past year. Low-level offenses such as simple possession of marijuana, public intoxication and failure to pay child support rank among the top five most frequent charges in recent years.

Law enforcement participation in referring people to the crisis stabilization center has gotten off to a slow start, with police accounting for 7 percent of referrals through the end of October. Out of the 254 patients admitted, five were diverted from jail. Most patients would have otherwise gone to emergency rooms or received other hospital treatment.

“Jail (diversion is) a sliver of the picture,” Blalock said. “We definitely expect that to grow as officers get more comfortable with the unit.”

Mount Pleasant Police Sgt. Matt Stafford said his experience taking people to the center has been seamless so far, and it’s faster than dropping someone off at an ER when hospitalization isn’t necessary.

“If we see someone in a mental crisis or any kind of crisis that shouldn’t rise to the level of being criminal, we have this other option,” he said. “For us, it’s a godsend.”

The Charleston County Sheriff’s Office delivers patients three meals a day from the jail and also staffs the center with a deputy. But by the end of October, county deputies hadn’t referred any patients to the center. Assistant Sheriff Mitch Lucas said that could be due to the fact that deputies don’t usually work in urban areas where they would be more likely to encounter people suffering a mental health crisis.

Lucas said he thinks law enforcement will embrace the center as an alternative to jail in certain situations. Officers will soon also have the option to take intoxicated people to a sobering center, which the Charleston Center plans to open in late December.

“I think there’s opportunities for lives to be changed,” Lucas said.


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