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Community Mental Health - Millage News

Posted on: February 17, 2021

WCCMH launches 24/7 crisis center with millage resources

Small house with hands shielding the roof and occupants.

Washtenaw County residents have long asked for a 24/7 crisis center—a place where individuals experiencing a behavioral health crisis can go for help and emotional support. Thanks to the Public Safety and Mental Health Preservation Millage, this vision has become a reality. 

750 Towner officially opened its doors in June of 2020—just steps away from the main Washtenaw County Community Mental Health (WCCMH) building in Ypsilanti. It is not a “walk-in” center for clients to directly access from the street. Rather, it serves as a place where people in crisis can be referred—typically by local hospital emergency rooms, law enforcement, and WCCMH’s CARES crisis team. The center fills a long-standing gap in Washtenaw County—a short-term, after-hours location for individuals in need to receive help.

“One of the goals of the millage was the community wanting a crisis center,” says Melisa Tasker, CARES program administrator. “We now have a beginning version of that… a place where people can go in a time of crisis that stays open after our other buildings close at 5 p.m.” 

750 Towner’s staff rotates day and night, and includes an administrative supervisor, a medical assistant, a crisis team clinician and at least two peer support specialists—individuals with lived experience who support others through their crisis and recovery.

Meeting a person’s basic needs is 750 Towner’s foremost goal, which often includes access to food, a shower, and a safe place to rest. The center also provides fresh clothes—t-shirts, underwear, and sweatpants. Oftentimes, clients will simply eat and go to sleep because they are tired. When they are ready, a clinician can meet with them to assess their needs. 

“Many people find themselves in a mental health crisis because their basic needs are not met,” explains Tasker. “And this makes their symptoms worse. If we address those needs first, they will be in a much better place for us to address what they need help with in terms of their behavioral health.”

750 Towner is a temporary space for those in crisis. The ultimate goal is to stabilize and create a warm handoff to a person’s primary provider—whether that is WCCMH themselves or another organization.

Tasker notes that before the center opened, the only after-hours option for people experiencing a crisis was a hospital emergency room (ER). Other times, depending on the situation, a person might end up in jail.

“Before, we’d spend hours at the ER trying to figure things out for someone,” Tasker explains. “Now we can spend time with them here. We are decreasing hospitalizations and time spent at the ER. These are both important things our community was looking for.”

So far, most clients of 750 Towner have been diverted from ER settings. The majority would likely have been admitted to an inpatient psychiatric unit—that is, if and when the space would become available. These inpatient units are costly and have limited capacities. And they’re not always the ideal setting for a person in crisis.

Kelley Van Gemert, a supervisor at 750 Towner, remembers a recent client who was experiencing extreme family-related loss and grief requiring professional intervention.

“At 750, we helped him cope through this,” says Van Gemert. “If the center hadn't been around, he would have likely been admitted to an inpatient psychiatric unit and not had access to his family members, who played a key role in helping him through the crisis.”

Van Gemert also points out that hospital-based emergency services can be limited in their capacity to help.

For example, one client referred from the ER had complicated medication issues that took several days to figure out. Ultimately, he was connected to Crisis Residential Services (CRS)—a one to two week program for people who need a longer in-person stay, but a less intensive setting than an inpatient hospital bed.

“At 750 Towner, we have the right tools to meet this population’s needs,” notes Van Gemert. “We have peer support specialists who engage with clients. We have connections to virtual meetings (for example, Narcotics Anonymous) to get people into the recovery community. The emergency rooms aren’t really equipped to do this.”

One of the center’s peer support specialists, Artie Tomlin, has a wealth of experience from previously working at Home of New Vision’s Engagement Center— a different short-term facility focused on substance use disorder recovery. 

At 750 Towner, he works the night shift and stands on the frontline of helping those in crisis. Sometimes, it’s simply letting a person vent before they’re able to calm down. Other times, it’s meeting someone to get them clothed and fed at 2 a.m.

Tomlin also notes the benefits of 750 Towner’s setting and behavioral health focus, compared to the emergency room.

“Sometimes, the person will go to the hospital and they might get help,” says Tomlin. “But many times, they don’t. They might even release them (without addressing their needs). Now they don’t have to sit there and wait.”

“We had a guy whose mom was about to pass away and he was going through a mental health crisis,” recalls Tomlin. After utilizing 750’s services and getting stabilized, “he was able to go to the hospital and see his mom without being manic.”

The CARES team conducts satisfaction surveys with all of their clients—the majority of which have been very positive.

“We’ve taken constructive criticism and already been able to better the program,” Tasker says. “People think staff are helpful and they feel comfortable going through hard situations here.”

Van Gemert echoes this sentiment, noting that 750 Towner and the CARES team is “typically that first step in getting people where they need to go… they feel safe and secure with us.”

Last year, the center served around 20 individuals—or, one to two people per week—who typically stayed between two to four days. While the center can eventually serve up to five individuals at one time, for safety during the COVID-19 epidemic, that number has temporarily been reduced to three. 

The CARES team says that once the COVID-19 vaccination is widespread, they will be able to serve more people. Tomlin says he’s excited to help more clients once the restrictions are lifted because he sees the community need for 750 Towner’s services.

“It’s wonderful to help them,” says Tomlin. “To listen… to let them vent... to comfort them. And to get them connected with what they need.” 

And while 2020 brought unforeseen barriers in opening the center, Tasker notes an unexpected benefit in “being able to slowly assess and build as we go.”

“We started with a shell of what we thought would happen,” says Tasker. “And now it’s been transferred into this really great program. Down the line, it may turn into more.”

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