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Local mental health services continue to lag behind need

October 29, 2017 | By Jim Osborn

A four-letter word — wait — describes what confronts many people when they attempt to tap into local community-based resources to deal with mental health issues.

Patient wait times are a continuing problem locally at every level of mental health care, from civil and criminal cases of people deemed a danger to themselves or others who will spend a few days in Norfolk or Kearney hospitals to those needing short- and longer-term residential treatment.

Wait times for residential services have remained pretty stagnant locally for the last few years, said Deputy Platte County Attorney Elizabeth Lay, who has spearheaded the office’s mental health commitment process for nearly five years. Those times can range from 30 days to six months.

“It’s a long wait for a bed for long-term treatment,” said Lay, noting that a patient can often languish on a list for three to six months before getting admitted.

“That’s a void in local services that becomes pretty evident,” she added.

More than a decade ago the state shifted responsibility for some mental health treatment from regional facilities to community-based services.

However, treatment gaps have opened between options that used to be available at regional facilities and what’s now accessible locally to people sitting in jail accused of crimes or who pose a danger to themselves or the public.

The state’s idea for expanded community-based services hasn’t materialized in Platte County, as some people have been caught in the void between care that is available locally and the need for longer-term, in-patient services.

The number of emergency protective custody cases handled by local law enforcement officers, the county attorney’s office and jail tell a stark story.

The county attorney’s office reported 66 EPC cases in 2005. That figure rose to 85 in 2006, 86 in 2007 and 90 in 2008. After dipping to 87 in 2009, the annual number rose to 109 in 2010, 107 in 2011, fell back to 94 in 2012 and reached 101 in 2013.

EPC cases climbed to 109 in 2014, 115 in 2015, 104 in 2016 and are on pace to easily surpass 100 this year.

Locally, when inmates are EPC’d they are transferred from jail to Faith Regional Health Services in Norfolk or the Richard Young mental health facility in Kearney. After a few days, the inmate is most often determined to be safe for confinement and returned to jail.

The cycle then repeats, sometimes two or three times. Revolving-door trips between Columbus and Norfolk create resource issues for law enforcement agencies, reducing officers’ time patrolling local streets.

Platte County Sheriff Ed Wemhoff and jail officials say an officer can be out of action locally for 10 to 12 hours while jumping through the hoops of getting a patient admitted to the Norfolk or Kearney hospitals. They also spend plenty of time at mental health board hearings.

That’s why Wemhoff and the county board have continued to budget funds annually for part-time mental health counseling services at the jail.

The inmates have become more accepting of the counseling professional, available for around four hours of one-on-one counseling every week, since the program got underway about three years ago, Wemhoff said.

The community’s mental health resources continue to evolve.

Goodwill Industries brought its community support services to Columbus in April. Office space inside the Columbus Family Resource Center is the hub for services delivered to the Region IV Behavioral Health System area, which includes Platte, Boone, Colfax and Nance counties.

Catholic Charities left the building at 3020 18th St. and closed its residential treatment program nearly a year ago. Rainbow Center’s mental health program followed this year with a similar announcement.

East Central District Health Department maintains a staff of five mental health professionals, offering outpatient therapy. The department provides no residential services.

“It’s wonderful that Goodwill came to our community,” said Wemhoff, who still wonders if the organization’s resources might already be overwhelmed by the scope of the local mental health treatment gaps.

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