Plans to meet emergency mental health needs in South Georgia after Southwestern State Hospital in Thomasville closes continue to take shape.

The hospital, which handles a significant part of Colquitt County’s crisis cases, will close in December.

A staff meeting of Benchmark Human Services held Friday at the Moultrie-Colquitt County Public Library provided an opportunity for local representatives to meet with the Benchmark team, which began offering mental health crisis assessment in four of Georgia’s six regions on June 1.

Under procedures in place before June 1, local law enforcement would respond to an emergency call about a mentally ill person in crisis. They would take the person to the Colquitt Regional Medical Center emergency room. Emergency room staff would decide on the need for assessment and care at a mental health facility. The hospital would call the Georgia Crisis Access Line, and GCAL would find a mental health facility with a bed available. Then the Colquitt County Sheriff’s Office would transport the person to wherever that hospital was.

At least, that’s how it was supposed to work. Colquitt Regional CEO Jim Matney assured the Benchmark team that in practice it didn’t work that way.

Matney said when CRMC called the crisis line, they were told they had to call around to the facillities to find a bed themselves. If a bed wasn’t available, the mentally ill person would have to stay in the emergency room until one was.

“We’re stuck with these patients 48 to 72 hours when I have to have a nurse or a security guard outside their room,” said Matney, a member of the local mental health committee.

Benchmark does not operate the crisis line; a different company has that contract with the state.

New procedures discussed Friday would appear to help relieve some of CRMC’s burden.

First, anyone can call the Georgia Crisis Access Line, 1-800-715-4225. The only requirement is that the caller must be in the presence of the person they’re calling about. Therefore the family, law enforcement, a concerned neighbor, anyone can seek an assessment for a person having a mental health crisis, according to Jayne Wade, regional director of Benchmark Human Services.

Actually, Wade said, they always could. Most people just didn’t know about the crisis line.

Now, when a person requests an assessment through the crisis line, the crisis line will dispatch one of Wade’s teams. Teams are based in Valdosta, Tifton, Albany and Thomasville and are on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Teams consist of licensed clinical social workers who can assess what services the person in crisis might need to be stabilized.

Law enforcement may still be involved if the mental health crisis results in an emergency, such as someone who threatens to hurt himself or others. The hospital emergency room may still be involved if there’s a medical issue, such as a diabetic’s elevated blood sugar or if the person is intoxicated or injured; the person’s medical issues must be addressed and he must be ready for dismissal before the team can assess his mental health needs.

If that assessment determines he needs to go to a specialized crisis facility, there will be two in South Georgia. Earlier this week, the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities announced the construction of a Behavioral Health Crisis Center in Valdosta and another in Albany. The Valdosta facility will have 24 beds plus six temporary observation beds, and the Albany facility will have 30 plus six temporary beds.

“There’s actually more beds when these open than we have now,” Wade said.

Both centers are expected to open in October, about two months before Southwestern State Hospital closes.

Local law enforcement would generally still provide the transportation, but — at least in theory — an officer could call Benchmark to the scene, the assessment be made there, and the officer take the patient straight to the Albany or Valdosta facility if a bed were available. The ER might not need to be involved at all, and potentially hours could be cut off the time between the initial call and arrival at the crisis center.

A key goal of the Behavioral Health Crisis Center concept is to keep the mentally ill person in or near their own community, Wade said. Therefore, a Colquitt Countian in crisis is more likely to wind up in Albany or Valdosta than somewhere across the state.

So, how often does this come up? On average … daily. Matney estimated the hospital sends 30 mental health patients to another facility every month, and often it’s the same patients over and over.

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