In the 1990s, community leaders in the South Carolina Lowcountry came together to address a growing concern about mental health services.
The collaboration included officials from hospitals, probate courts, law enforcement agencies, emergency medical services, social services and mental health centers. Now, more than a decade later, the group continues to address wide-ranging issues and tackle obstacles before they become overwhelming.
“You might think that 40 to 50 people wouldn’t get a lot done, but that’s not the case,” says Deborah Blalock, head of the Charleston Dorchester Mental Health Center. “The group has always been focused on problem solving, and it still is.”
The task force recently received a grant from The Duke Endowment to support its coordinated response to mental health needs. The grant is supporting a mobile unit that will use innovative technology to link health care professionals to on-call psychiatrists, who then will be able to see and speak with patients in remote areas. Grant funds will also extend operating hours for the Psychiatric Urgent Care Clinic, which opened in 2009 at the mental health center.
The expanded network of mental health resources is designed to divert patients from overcrowded emergency departments and psychiatric inpatient facilities. Officials estimate that some 260 fewer clients will visit those facilities each year, which will save $279,000 annually.
With more than 103 clients receiving care in its first three months, the Psychiatric Urgent Care Clinic has already surpassed expectations. Twenty-four of those clients were referred from a local emergency department; 79 were unscheduled walk-ins who likely would have sought treatment in an emergency room.
“We may get calls from a police officer in the field who needs our help with someone, or we may get calls from individuals who aren’t doing well,” says Matt Dorman, special operations director at the Mental Health Center. “Sometimes all the phones are ringing at once.”
The mobile care unit hit the road on Nov. 1, 2010, visiting difficult-to-reach neighborhoods and communities without mental health services. One day a week, for example, it’s parked at a medical clinic in
Heather Lloyd, the “Highway to Hope” coordinator, and Christine Pettit, a nurse practitioner, accept scheduled appointments and walk-ins. By offering crisis intervention, assessment, case management, individual and family therapy and medication management, they provide immediate psychiatric care to adults and children who need it.
“Many of the clients have been diagnosed with depression or anxiety,” Lloyd says. “We’ve come across a lot of people who have lost their jobs in the last few years, especially in these rural areas. People like the privacy of the RV, and there’s not quite the stigma of going into a mental health clinic.”
The goal is to help patients avoid emergency room visits or unnecessary hospital stays.
“We’re helping a lot of people who have never been seen before,” Pettit says. “The communities have been very accepting. We hear over and over: ‘This is a godsend. I’m so glad you’re here.’ ”
Lin B. Hollowell III
Director of Health Care