In late 2018, East Baton Rouge Parish voters approved a tax hike for the Bridge Center for Hope – a new way to stop overdoses, suicides and other mental health problems that slowly but surely increased.
In 2020, these problems exploded.
Baton Rouge broke the record for overdose deaths last year, and it threatens to produce even more in 2021. The isolating coronavirus pandemic has also led to a sharp rise in mental health problems across the country, according to the CDC.
When the Bridge Center opened its doors on Thursday, its mission was more urgent than ever.
“The opening couldn’t come fast enough,” said East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore. “We very much hope this place saves lives.”
Moore was one of several law enforcement officers who successfully campaigned for community voters two years ago to approve a $ 1.5 million 10-year property tax to fund the Bridge Center. They argued the facility was a much-needed alternative to the emergency room or prison, where law enforcement usually takes people in similar crises.
The 24,000 square foot facility, located across from Baton Rouge General Mid City, uses a “no false door” approach. That means anyone struggling with addiction problems or in need of psychiatric help is welcome – whether they’re walking in from Florida Boulevard or being accompanied by a loved one, or transported by first responders or law enforcement.
The newly opened facility is located at 3455 Florida Blvd. – Has a designated side entrance with a “law enforcement” sign and a doorbell for police officers and rescue workers to drop patients off quickly and efficiently. The Bridge Center aims for a handover that will not take longer than 5 minutes.
Joy Brunson Nsubuga, an official with RI International, the contractor who operates the site, said they have put very limited circumstances in which law enforcement agencies can drop patients off at the Bridge Center, only that they must be at least 18 years old they are not experiencing a medical emergency.
“We don’t want them to make a lot of triage decisions on the ground,” Nsubuga said of law enforcement officers. “When they encounter someone in a mental health crisis or substance abuse crisis, we tell them to bring them straight to us.”
Cpl. L’Jean McKneely, a spokesman for the BRPD, said city police officers would make these determinations “on a case-by-case basis” adding that they could not “force” anyone to go to the Bridge Center – “they have to want to go.” “
A spokesman for the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office said they are currently leaving those decisions to either the coroner, who can take someone into protective custody, or the medical staff who are in the parish prison during the pre-booking process.
“In order for our MPs to make such decisions, some training is required,” said sheriff’s spokesman Casey Rayborn Hicks.
At some point the Bridge Center will employ a two-person mobile response team consisting of a clinician and a social worker. It is tied into the community’s 911 system and can be dropped off on non-emergency calls related to substance abuse or mental health issues.
“We’re the experts in behavioral health care, and we want to be that resource for first responders so they can do what they do as experts, which protects the community,” said Nsubuga.
The Bridge Center is set up as a short-term respite for those suffering from an urgent conduct disorder. The first station for each patient is the crisis stabilization unit, an open room with 16 beds in which clinicians examine and treat patients on site for the first 23 hours.
About 30% of patients may need more time to stabilize and are taken to either a detox or psychiatric ward for a few days as needed. Both units have 16 beds and are looked after around the clock.
Upon arrival, patients are immediately matched with a care management team tasked with planning their discharge. This team stays connected with patients for up to 30 days after their stay and provides a “warm handover” as patients navigate to doctor appointments and other services.
Ultimately, the aim is to connect guests with longer-term health care and not just to help in an immediate crisis. The site was originally scheduled to open in December, but there were delays in obtaining permits from the state health department.