By Karen Petersen
Director Of Development
Imagine you’re sick, and your symptoms flare. But people around you aren’t familiar with your condition and have no idea how to respond. They’re terrified and call police, who take you to jail or the Emergency Department. Neither is equipped to handle your type of illness. Eventually your symptoms subside, and you are discharged or released.
Sadly, your underlying condition has yet to be addressed and treated. Inevitably, your symptoms present again. The cycle continues.
For years, that has been the norm for many individuals experiencing what’s known as a mental health crisis. The process has been detrimental to those in crisis and puts undue burdens on hospital ER workers and law enforcement alike. Fortunately, WellStone, North Alabama’s nonprofit mental health leader, is building the Tennessee Valley’s first crisis diversion center. The $10 million construction project is underway on WellStone’s main campus in South Huntsville.
The 25,000 sq. Ft., state-of-the-art crisis center will be completed this summer, but WellStone Emergency Services, or WES, has been providing limited crisis services to adults at a temporary location since last spring. The program’s impact was immediate, demonstrating the community’s critical need for these services.
“People in a mental health crisis may be experiencing a psychotic break. They may be delusional, with hallucinations or suicidal ideations, or dealing with substance abuse,” said Jeremy Blair, WellStone CEO. “At WES, we can stabilize them, diagnose them, and set them on the road to long-term recovery.”
WES is one of three crisis diversion programs operating across the state. In November 2020, Governor Kay Ivey announced WellStone, plus agencies in Mobile and Montgomery, would receive state funding for these centers to bridge a substantial gap in the state’s continuum of care. Governor Ivey later announced Birmingham would also receive crisis center support.
While the other organizations are retrofitting existing facilities, WellStone is building to spec.
“We had land available on our main campus and wanted a design that would create the best environment for our clients,” added Blair. “The new facility provides a peaceful, calming atmosphere. We don’t want clients to feel like they’re in a hospital or institution. There will be clinical spaces, a dining hall, activity and group rooms. Clients can stay up to seven days.”
In its first seven months, WES served 150 clients at its temporary, 10-bed facility. Clients who previously wound up in jails or hospitals during their crises were grateful to finally receive the mental healthcare they needed in a setting conducive to healing.
“I’ve spent time in inpatient facilities before, and they’ve been bad experiences that left me more traumatized than when I arrived,” said one client, a 24-year-old female with bipolar 1 disorder, psychotic features, depression and four prior suicide attempts. “But the WES staff cares. They treated me with compassion. The doctors and therapists are a blessing.”
Isn’t that how it should be? People suffering from any medical condition, whether it affects the body or mind, deserve to be treated in a positive, peaceful environment by kind, qualified specialists. Without judgment.
That’s why WellStone clinicians encourage community members to learn as much as they can about mental health, so they can do their part to eliminate stigma associated with mental illness and substance abuse.
Governor Ivey’s support, along with contributions from Madison County, Huntsville and Madison total $5 million, leaving a substantial gap.
WellStone is in the preliminary stages of its “Be the Rock” capital campaign to raise the remaining $5 million. To learn how you can help WellStone “build a foundation of compassion, connection and community for those in crisis,” contact Karen Petersen, Director of Development, at firstname.lastname@example.org.