Mental healthcare in Alabama is changing. And it’s about time.
For too long, an Alabamian facing a mental health crisis had two primary options: the hospital emergency department or jail. Neither option is ideal, and neither fully addresses the deeper mental health or substance abuse issues at hand.
That’s why mental health advocates cheered in 2020 when Governor Kay Ivey announced the state was funding mental health crisis centers in Madison County, Baldwin County and Montgomery County. These facilities serve as 24/7 psychiatric care centers for those in crisis, which can include suicidal ideation, self-harm, delusions, hallucinations or substance abuse. Birmingham wasn’t included in the first round of funding, but its turn would come. Last fall, local leaders learned the JBS (Jefferson, Blount and St. Clair Counties) Mental Health Authority would also receive state funding to open a similar facility.
While the Magic City is expected to open its crisis diversion center later this spring, the original three centers are coming up on a year of service. WellStone, the nonprofit mental health center serving North Alabama, operates its crisis diversion center as WellStone Emergency Services in Huntsville. WES has provided limited services at a temporary 10-bed location since May 2021 but will move into a new 35-bed facility when construction is completed later this summer.
“We were fortunate to have space on our main campus,” said Jeremy Blair, WellStone CEO. “We chose to build to spec and wanted to have a design that would deliver the best environment. Our state-of-the art facility should be completed in June. Besides clinical spaces, there will be a dining hall, activity rooms and group rooms. We are creating a peaceful, calming atmosphere. We don’t want these clients to feel like they are in a hospital or institutional setting.”
WellStone is the only agency building a new facility specifically for this purpose; the others are retrofitting existing sites. Either way, the communities are embracing this improved level of crisis care.
“Law enforcement has struggled for years to best serve those in mental health crisis,” said Deputy Chief Dewayne McCarver, a 27-year veteran of the Huntsville Police Department. “Thanks to Wellstone, our first responders have the resources they need to care for those in crisis. There is finally an option other than the emergency room or jail for these situations.”
In its first seven months, WES served more than 150 clients at its temporary location. In line with Wellstone’s nonprofit mission, no one is turned away due to an inability to pay. Adults can stay up to seven days. Stabilization is the primary goal, but WellStone’s crisis team is committed to helping each client begin, or continue, their recovery journeys.
"The WES team works hard to ensure clients can overcome barriers to recovery success," said Paula Steele, WES Director. "We have a team of round-the-clock care managers to work with each client after they leave, ensuring clients are able to access follow-on services. This 'warm handoff' concept improves each client's ability to maintain their gains after discharge.”
Alabama’s diversion centers are already making a significant difference for those in crisis, as well as the ER and law enforcement teams in these communities.
But more importantly, it’s changing the way people across the state view—and treat—those in mental health crisis. After all, mental illness and substance use disorders aren’t reflections of one’s character, but a result of the human condition. Whether the mind or body is in crisis, high-quality and appropriate emergency healthcare should be available 24/7. Thankfully, in Alabama, it finally is.
Karen Petersen is the Director of Development at WellStone.
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