WRAL Investigates

Wake struggles to treat mentally ill

Posted August 18, 2016

— Nearly one in five adults deal with some level of mental illness, and Wake County is struggling to handle what officials call a growing crisis.

"Almost everybody in Wake County is going to know somebody who's going to experience a problem or who already has," Wake County Manager Jim Hartmann said.

Hartmann said the crisis caught his attention twice in the past 18 months when WakeMed's emergency room was overwhelmed by people with mental health issues.

Wake County isn't unique, however. Last year, 5,700 mental health patients ended up in emergency rooms across the state.

Part of the problem is the wait times at the state's psychiatric hospitals. It takes almost four-and-a-half days to get admitted to Broughton Hospital in Morganton, almost five days to Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro and more than five days to Central Regional Hospital in Butner.

Wake County operates one public facility to help mentally ill people in distress. WakeBrook has only 16 beds, however, with 12 more coming later this year.

"The number of facilities that we have in Wake County to accommodate people in crisis is not sufficient," Hartmann said.

Sheriff Donnie Harrison often winds up dealing with the overflow.

Based on the percentage of the overall population of people with mental, behavioral or substance abuse problems, the Wake County Detention Center is the largest mental health facility in the county.

"It's costing taxpayers dollars," Harrison said. "If they need treatment, then we need to take them somewhere where they can get treatment. Now, that doesn't mean if they violate the law that they're going to get by with it, but we just want to make sure they get some help."

The county Board of Commissioners approved Hartmann's budget recommendation of spending $27.5 million in the 2016-17 fiscal year on mental health and substance abuse programs, including more than $1 million in extra funding for the detention center to increase psychiatric services and hire more correctional officers to handle medical supervision, programs Hartmann and Harrison hope will help slow the revolving door of people with mental health issues returning to jail.

"We can capture people as they're being booked , identify those with mental health and behavioral health problems, get them treatment while they're in jail and then discharge them with some case management services," Hartmann said.

"If we can help these people, get them on a track so they can get some help – I know a lot of people say, 'Well it's useless' – but look, if we can save one or two, we've done something," Harrison said.

A new mental hospital in Goldsboro with 116 new beds is scheduled to start accepting patients next month, helping ease the crisis, but Hartmann said more attention needs to be paid to mental health treatment, because the problem will only get larger as Wake County grows.

"We've got to stay on it. This is not something that's going to be here today and it's not going to be here tomorrow," he said.

Hartmann said he knows it's tough to convince taxpayers that mental health spending is an investment in the community, but he said it must be addressed.

"Once you really start talking about this issue, people are listening," he said. "Once it becomes personalized, it makes it easier to deal with, but it's still one of the things when people look the other way. So, today we've got to look at it."


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