Brittney Burns – Staff Writer
Macon County leaders spent part of the week in Raleigh for the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners (NCACC) annual County Assembly Day.
County Assembly Day is an opportunity for North Carolina county officials to meet with and hear from state legislative leaders and meet with their state legislative representatives. During the May meeting of the Macon County Board of Commissioners, Commissioner Ronnie Beale, who serves as past president of the NCACC, assured the public that the state’s mental health crisis will once again be a topic of discussion at County Assembly Day.
“This past week, it took six hours [for a mental patient to get treatment] in the ER,” Beale said during last week’s commissioner’s meeting. “On average, from Mission, to Cherokee County Hospital, the average is about 40 people a day in the ERs. There’s just not enough beds. The average wait in the ER is constantly increasing. We try to reduce that, and sometimes it works; others, as Shelly can tell you, it doesn’t.”
Shelly Foreman with Smoky Mountain LME/MCO updated the commissioners on changes and projects currently under way to hopefully address the mental health crisis in the region. Foreman spoke to commissioners about the uncertainty of state funding for mental health issues, as well as the lack of beds available for people in the state. Agreeing with Beale, Foreman noted that mental health patients are often looked on as a burden rather than individuals with a disease and she said their treatment reflects that. Addressing those concerns on the state level was something Foreman thanked Beale and the rest of Macon leaders for being willing to do at County Assembly Day.
One area Smoky Mountain LME plans to focus on is the increasing opiate abuse in Western North Carolina.
Beale, who serves on Smoky Mountain’s board and has done so for 11 years, agreed that the increased abuse of opiates in the area is becoming epidemic. “I’ve worked with Senator Davis, who has introduced some legislation,” said Beale. “To give you an idea of where we’re at, there’s 113 opiate prescriptions for every citizen in North Carolina. If that doesn’t get your attention, it should. We have no detox facilities; there’s very few and the wait is long. A young man in Macon County court was mandated for a year to serve in an institution and stay clean. So, where does he go?”
Both Foreman and Beale agreed that to address the mental health crisis in the state, legislators need to get on board to break the endless cycle. Mental health patients who don’t get the care they need due to lack of resources, end up back on the streets to continue drug abuse, which eventually puts them back into local hospitals without the capacity to care for them. Beale said the state needs to remember that mental health problems are a disease, a sickness that needs to be treated as such.
“Had a person had cancer, they’d be at Duke University getting the best treatment to try to rescue that person the best they can,” said Beale. “But with a mental illness, we’ll put them in the emergency room for 100 hours with no treatment. It’s the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen. Things are improving, but we have got to have more beds, because these people need some help.”
Involuntary commitments that require the presence of law enforcement place an extra strain on a department’s budget. Once an involuntary commitment order has been issued, law enforcement transports are required to the few facilities in the state, which often require Macon County officers to spend an overnight trip traveling as far as the coast to find an available bed for those in need. Foreman noted that Smoky Mountain is working to address the issue by working out a program that would allow WNC law enforcement agencies to transport patients to the Balsam Center located just over the Jackson County line in Haywood County.
By October of this year, Smoky Mountain hopes to have renovations completed to the Balsam facility that will allow the crisis center to also serve as an Involuntary Drop off Center. When the program is implemented, Macon County Sheriff’s Office deputies could release the patients into the care of the Balsam Center until other transportation arrangements can be made to facilities in the state. The Balsam Center will employ clinicians that can help begin the intake process for patients.
Individuals who are classified as involuntary commitments are in need of psychiatric care and are often considered a danger to themselves, not necessarily to others. Having a drop off center in WNC will not only help local law enforcement agencies, but it will also help the patients in need of care by helping keep them close to their families and their support systems. In addition to expanding to to a drop off center, by July, the Balsam Center plans to complete a renovation that will increase the number of beds at the facility from 12 to 16, allowing more patients to receive care locally.
Anyone in Macon County or Western North Carolina can call Smoky for free at 1-800-849-6127, 24 hours a day, for help in a crisis or for more information about local services for mental health, substance use or intellectual/developmental disability concerns.