Morning sunlight pours into the spacious waiting room of the Treatment and Recovery Center of Douglas County.
Dr. George Thompson, executive director and medical director, stands in the corner and points out the absence of glass encasing the front desk. An extra-wide and long counter — nearly impossible to reach over — posts up between the areas that visitors and the center’s unit coordinator will occupy.
Visitors could miss some of the intentional elements within the walls of the Treatment and Recovery Center, or TRC, without an insider to point out those important details.
“It’s not like glass between you and the patient, so that’s the welcoming part, right?” Thompson says. “It can be safe, but it doesn’t feel like it’s designed to say you’re a threat.”
More than four months after its building dedication, the center has yet to serve within its walls patients experiencing crises in mental health, chemical use and addiction. The services it will ultimately provide continue at LMH Health, Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, and across Douglas County via the mobile crisis response team and other organizations.
Meanwhile, Thompson and staff work behind the scenes preparing the TRC for patients.
Past the waiting room is a section filled with offices and a conference room. What patients can’t see: a sign that hangs above the door between the waiting room and office corridor. The yellow sign reads “BELIEVE,” like the one above the office door of eternal optimist Ted Lasso on the Apple TV+ series of the same name.
Douglas County Administrator Sarah Plinsky is reluctant to estimate a date when the center might open its doors; however, she cautions, the TRC shouldn’t be compared to a retail business on opening day.
“We likely will phase in operations,” Plinsky says of the $10.6 million facility that local leaders said would open during the summer. “Because you want to test one thing, then another thing and another thing.”
A large monitor hangs on a wall inside one of six small meeting rooms near the front of the TRC.
“Our computers can then project on here so that patients can see what we’re writing about them,” Thompson says.
Another feature throughout the center: heavy tables and chairs weighed down with sand. Their density not only makes them safer; they’re also grounding and sturdy, and they can’t easily tip, Thompson says.
Most patients won’t receive services within the TRC beyond consultation, Plinsky says, referring to the services offered during intake via the TRC’s Access Center. Many will receive community-based referrals instead.
Thompson points out an after-hours side door on the building’s west side. Law enforcement, mobile emergency services and patients who are experiencing a serious mental health or chemical use crisis can enter through this door. They’ll be greeted, Thompson says, by at least three staff members. The team could be composed of a nurse, a behavioral health specialist and a peer counselor, for example.
“Our goal is for the police officers to be here for less than 10 minutes,” Thompson says.
Down the hall, one of the center’s two recovery rooms awaits. Lined with soft walls and flooring, the rooms give individuals their own private and safe space to calm down and stabilize. A floor drain in each of them helps facilitate their cleanup.
Additional consultation rooms and bathrooms line the halls. Should a patient need medication, a shower, their clothing laundered, time to sleep, or something to eat, those needs will be met too, Thompson says.
In the middle of the TRC, an observation unit can accommodate up to 16 adult patients for up to 23 hours. Thompson compares it to a psychiatric emergency department. Recliners across a large room fold down flat if needed.
“Research from Connections shows about two-thirds of patients can return home from this kind of stabilization,” Thompson says.
He’s referring to Connections Health Solutions, the for-profit crisis management entity in Arizona that Douglas County behavioral health and government leaders have consulted with since 2019. Discussions about the possibility of the county also forming a management relationship with Connections have transpired, but Plinsky has not presented a formal recommendation to the Douglas County Commission.
High ceilings and natural light encapsulate the observation and stabilization units, which are separated by a mission control center.
“When people are in crisis, they feel like the world is closing in on them,” Thompson says. “So the building itself gives you a sense that things are opening up. You have more room to breathe.”
Up to 16 patients can enter the stabilization unit. Patients will double up inside eight rooms that line a large area of tables, chairs and couches. In this unit, staff will monitor adults up to 72 hours before discharging them back into the community with a care plan. Some patients will instead transfer to another medical or psychiatric care facility.
Against a backdrop of autumn colors and the noise of a passing train through North Lawrence, the center’s back patio gives patients an opportunity for fresh air. It’s enclosed with a tall gate and a soft upper net for safety and security.
Rounding out some of the center’s remaining rooms inside are those used for training and meetings with family members.
When a person experiences a crisis involving mental illness or chemical use, they might end up in one of two places: jail or the emergency room, Thompson says. The TRC will offer people in Douglas County a third possibility, although its newness has also contributed to licensing hurdles.
“What makes it most unique is that we’ll take any person, regardless of how upset they are, how agitated they are,” Thompson says. “And if there’s a patient that is in the emergency room with psychiatric or substance use issues and we need to have them admitted to a psychiatric hospital, hospitals don’t always take everybody. They’ll tell us that person’s too agitated … And so this is really designed to make sure that we’re taking care of everybody.”
Although children and their guardians can utilize the TRC’s referral and consultation services — that’s part of the Access Center — state rules restrict the observation and stabilization units to patients 18 and older.
When asked about local children and families who can’t utilize the TRC’s 23- and 72-hour units, Plinsky offered a possibility. She says discussions about providing more services for children experiencing mental health crises have continued since voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax in 2018 to fund the Treatment and Recovery Campus of Douglas County.
“There’s been conversations with the county, Bert Nash, with the whole behavioral health leadership team, on what more we can do for kids in crisis,” Plinsky says. “So I think those are some of our next steps — once we get this up and going.”
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Tricia Masenthin (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at tmasenthin (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.