Center to address mental health crisis readies fall opening in Birmingham

Workers have gutted the bottom floor of a plain office building on the outskirts of Birmingham, exposing the beams, wiring and concrete floor of the space that will soon hold the state’s fourth mental health crisis center.

The facilities, which were announced in 2020 and 2021, will operate 24 hours a day to serve the needs of drug users and people with mental illness who need immediate treatment for one to three days. The first two crisis centers have already opened in Mobile and Huntsville. The third, in Montgomery, has not yet opened its doors.

Jim Crego, executive director of Jefferson-Blount-St. Clair Mental Health Authority, said he hopes to open the Birmingham Crisis Care Center this fall. It will have 32 temporary beds for patients who need less than 24 hours of care and 16 extended beds for longer stays of up to three days. The center will serve 20 counties in western and central Alabama.

“Based on our research, we are going to see a lot more substance use need than mental health,” Crego said. “We will have many 23-hour beds for a sobering up period with linkages to longer-term care.”

The center is supposed to fill a gap in care for people who need urgent psychiatric care and often end up in emergency rooms or local jails. Crego said he hopes police officers and emergency responders will be able to bring patients to the crisis care center instead. The facility also will be open for patients who want to voluntarily enter treatment, but will not be able to serve people who also need medical care.

The crisis care center received $7 million in state funding announced last fall. Earlier this year, Crego hired Dr. Sabrina Scott, who has nearly 15 years’ experience in the mental health field, including three years running a crisis care center in Cobb County, Georgia.

“This will really serve many of the people who might otherwise end up in an ER or in jail,” Scott said. “In those places, instead of getting help, they are often experiencing more trauma.”

The center is opening during a critical time for mental health in Alabama and the United States. Substance use and overdose deaths spiked during the last two years, reaching all-time highs in Jefferson County and the United States. Suicide rates, which tend to lag by a year or two, have been rising since 2000.

In 2000, 46,000 people in the United States died by suicide, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is one of the leading causes of death for young people.

The new center will also alleviate wait times for law enforcement officers, Crego said. They often need to wait for several hours in emergency department waiting rooms until patients are admitted for care. At the crisis care center, they can drop off quickly, in about 15 minutes.

The center will also prevent people with mental illness from consuming resources in a criminal justice system, Crego said. Every time a mentally ill person is jailed, they need to assign a judge, a public defender and other staff.

“There’s a whole slew of people downstream who are affected,” Crego said.

It costs about $65 a day to keep a person in the Jefferson County Jail, according to JBS Mental Health Authority. Approximately 240 people every month are jailed in the county because of symptoms of mental illness or substance use.

Alabama has a severe shortage of mental health providers, ranking 50th out of all the states and D.C. for psychiatric professionals per capita, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Mental health advocates have long lobbied for the creation of crisis care centers in Alabama as alternatives to jails and emergency departments. Gov. Kay Ivey announced the first three in 2020 and has since announced three more, bringing the total number to six.

“The Ivey Administration is fully committed to addressing the very real challenges in the area of mental health care,” she said in a statement announcing the Birmingham center. “This is critical, and should not be overlooked, which is why it remains of high importance in my agenda.”