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State and UNC partner on mental health hospital for young people

R.J. Blackley Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment Center in Butner
R.J. Blackley Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment Center in Butner

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services is partnering with UNC Health to open a 54-bed hospital for children and teens experiencing mental health crises.

Across the state's hospitals, an average of more than 250 people wait for behavioral health services in emergency departments every day. That includes more than 50 children and adolescents, according to state data. The average waiting time to get out of the ER is 57 hours.

"A busy emergency room is no place for anyone, let alone a child or adolescent who is having a behavioral health crisis," says Dr. Wesley Burks, CEO of UNC Health.

Leading research shows that community based care is generally better, but the state says it needs these high level services as well. It can take up to three months for a patient to be seen in an outpatient setting, a time lag that may worsen a mental health crisis.

"If you were to walk through the psych emergency department at UNC or anywhere else, you would see massive suffering and families literally living in the emergency department," says Dr. Samantha Meltzer-Brody, chair of the UNC department of psychiatry. "This is a very critical step forward."

DHHS secretary Kody Kinsley says the state is investing in more community based care.

"But we also have kids today sitting in emergency departments and other places that have nowhere to go. Where more at-home services and more prevention services are not going to make a difference for them today" he says. "We have got to address the crisis at hand, and we also are committed to investing in resources in the community."

The hospital will be developed at the R.J. Blackley Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment Center in Butner. That facility is one of three state operated North Carolina Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment Centers (ADATCs) specifically designed to provide medically-monitored detoxification/crisis stabilization. Kinsley says there's enough capacity throughout the system that these treatment and stabilization and services will still be provided to those in need.

Copyright 2022 North Carolina Public Radio. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio.

Jason deBruyn is the WUNC data reporter, a position he took in September, 2016.