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Psych unit improving mental health system, officials say

At a time when the state’s fractured mental health care system seems beyond repair, local mental health officials have hit on a solution that could go a long way toward fixing it.

The key might lie in a new program playing out in the halls of the sixth floor of Haywood Regional Medical Center. The floor has been converted to a 16-bed psychiatric wing, which opened in November and is run by the Smoky Mountain Center for Mental Health. Officials recently took The Smoky Mountain News on a tour of the facility.

The psych ward was established with a state-funded grant given to only two hospitals in North Carolina, one of which was HRMC. Desperate for a way to relieve overcrowding in the state’s mental hospitals, state officials asked HRMC to build a psychiatric unit that would provide more bed space closer to home.

Before it opened, there were no long-term beds for psychiatric patients in all of 15 western counties, and patients had to be transported to Broughton Hospital in Morganton. Often, patients in critical need of immediate care had to wait for days until a bed opened up at Broughton, putting a strain on the patients, their families, and the sheriff’s deputies who had to wait with them.

But with the opening of HRMC’s psychiatric unit, the number of patients going to Broughton from WNC has dropped dramatically, according to the first round of statistics released by administrators at the Smoky Mountain Center. From Jan. 1 through 28, only five patients went to Broughton from WNC — a two-thirds drop over the same period a year ago when 17 patients were admitted from the region.

Smoky Mountain Center officials are hesitant to declare success so early on. But the numbers indicate what is “potentially the lowest admission rate ever to Broughton,” said Smoky Mountain Director Doug Trantham. Trantham said that already, two other hospitals are interested in partnering with the Smoky Mountain Center to instate a similar program.

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Smoky Mountain officials believe that the program’s unique model of care, which emphasizes recovery, likely is a big reason for its success rate. The model is in contrast to the institutional model that has traditionally been employed in the psychiatric field.

Under the old model, a patient had to adhere to a strict schedule — waking up, eating, and attending therapy groups at the same time every day. But the recovery model gives the patient more of a say, allowing the patient to decide whether he or she is ready to wake up, or if they instead need more sleep, for example.

Patients in the psychiatric program at HRMC take walks, do yoga, and gather to socialize and play games with other patients.

“It’s a support network that gives you the strength you don’t have outside,” explained a 20-year-old female patient staying at the unit, who spoke about her experience during The Smoky Mountain News’ tour of the facility.

Smoky Mountain Mental Health officials are reporting additional success with their efforts to improve mental health care in WNC. Officials at Smoky Mountain are making steps to re-open the Adult Recovery Unit at the Balsam Center by April, which will provide additional bed space for patients in need of psychiatric care.

“The unit was closed on Dec. 12 following a determination that there were insufficient staff resources, particularly experienced and trained nurses, to safely operate,” both the new HRMC unit and the Adult Recovery Unit, according to Smoky Mountain Center officials.

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