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’A lack of mental health services has plagued Chicago for decades’: Holy Cross Hospital expanding to fill that void on the Southwest Side

Wednesday, July 10, 2019
Chicago Tribune
by LISA SCHENCKER

For years, health care leaders and advocates have decried a lack of mental health services in Chicago.

Now, Holy Cross Hospital on the city’s Southwest Side seeks to address the issue with the opening of a $6.5 million unit this week to treat patients experiencing mental health crises. The 12,000-square-foot unit, housed mostly in new construction on the east side of the hospital, can treat up to 32 patients at a time.

 

It will accept patients brought by ambulances and police as well as walk-i

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ns and people sent from the hospital’s emergency room. Patients will be able to get treatment in the unit for up to a day before being connected with other services or admitted to the hospital, if necessary.

“We know patients will often end up going to emergency departments to receive this kind of help,” said Paul Berkowitz, chairman of the department of psychiatry for Sinai Health System, which includes Holy Cross. “Emergency departments aren’t necessarily the best equipped to handle patients with these unique needs. They don’t necessarily have the staffing for that or the physical space for that.

Currently, when patients with mental health emergencies arrive at emergency departments, they sometimes have to wait for days for an appropriate placement. Or worse, they might end up in jail if they don’t receive long-term, effective treatment.

“The crisis stabilization unit allows us to really focus on those unique, specific needs of a patient who has a behavioral health crisis,” Berkowitz said.

Psychiatrists and psychiatric nurse practitioners will be on hand to help patients, and the unit will be open 24 hours a day. The interior is designed for patients with mental health needs, featuring a living room area where patients can sit or meet with family members, Berkowitz said. Soothing colors and murals of city parks will adorn the walls.

“It has more of a calming and healing environment to it,” Berkowitz said.

The hospital has had success with a smaller version of the unit, one that could serve 12 patients at a time, that it began trying out in 2015. In the pilot, the hospital has been able to discharge about 70% of patients to lower levels of care within 24 hours, with the rest needing inpatient hospitalization, Berkowitz said.

Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart said in a statement that the unit is needed to provide appropriate care for those experiencing mental health emergencies.

“A lack of mental health services has plagued Chicago for decades,” Dart said. “We know that 60 percent of those diagnosed with mental illness never receive treatment and unfortunately, the police and our jails are picking up the brunt of this."

It should also help to end the in-and-out-of-the-emergency-department cycle many patients find themselves falling into, said Alexa James, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Chicago. And it will be more conducive to patients experiencing mental health crises than waiting in an emergency department for appropriate treatment.

“The trauma associated with that is huge and the cost to the hospital associated with that is huge,” James said of making patients in mental health crises wait in emergency departments. “If you’re at Mount Sinai Hospital and someone next to you is dying of a gunshot wound, it’s just not the place to be if you’re experiencing mental health emergencies.”

In recent years, Cook County Health has supported similar centers on the South and West sides for patients experiencing mental health emergencies, though those centers are not attached to hospitals. The county health system estimated at the time its South Side center opened in 2016 that about 20% of detainees at the county jail had a behavioral health issue that may have led to their detention.



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