Construction of recovery facility in Essex hailed as ‘long overdue’

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Governor Phil Scott, center, joined by state officials and lawmakers, inaugurates a new mental health facility on the grounds of the former Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Essex on Friday, October 15, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell / VT Digger

The caravans that made up the seven-bed public psychiatric facility in Middlesex were to last no more than two years. As an interim measure opened in 2013, the beds were part of the state’s new regional mental health infrastructure intended to replace the 54 inpatient beds at the old Waterbury Psychiatric Hospital. Tropical Storm Irene destroyed the Waterbury complex two years earlier.

The Middlesex trailers, which some mental health advocates call “prison-like”, remain in use. But their term will soon end, heads of state said on Friday at a groundbreaking event for a 16 bed facility in Essex.

“To be completely honest, this has been done for a long time,” said Rep. William Lippert Jr., D-Hinesburg, who chairs the House Committee on Health Care. ” We know it. We recognize it and we must recognize it on behalf of Vermonters whose lives are affected and affected by mental illness. “

At 17,000 square feet, the new Essex facility is expected to cost $ 15.4 million. Construction is expected to be completed in December 2022 and the first patients are expected to arrive the following spring.

The adult recovery center is under construction on the grounds of the Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center, which is now closed. The dilapidated Woodside building will be demolished in the process, and state officials have proposed replacing the juvenile facility with a new complex in Newbury. However, this plan met with local opposition.

Construction of the recovery facility comes as the coronavirus pandemic has strained nearly every part of Vermont’s mental health infrastructure. An increase in depression, anxiety and other untreated disorders has led to an increase in demand for mental health inpatient beds at a time when healthcare workers are scarce.

With few psychiatric inpatient beds open in Vermont, many crisis patients are stranded in emergency departments at state hospitals until a bed opens. Alison Krompf, deputy commissioner for the Vermont Department of Mental Health, said last month that all but five of the state’s 138 adult psychiatric beds were occupied. Since then, the department has worked to get more beds online, but psychiatric patients continue to wait in emergency departments statewide.

Essex recovery center is said to ease the pressure by supporting adults who have completed the type of intensive care offered by the Brattleboro Retreat or the Berlin Public Mental Hospital, but are not yet ready to return home. The facility would be equipped with natural light, access to nature, and common activities such as cooking and gardening, said Emily Hawes, state commissioner for mental health.

“We now know that care facilities that are more like a home than an institution and allow easy access to nature help residents feel safe, which in turn contributes to recovery.” , she said.

However, central Essex won’t be quite like home. Residents would benefit from 24/7 medical surveillance. As with the trailers in Middlesex, the new facility would be surrounded by a fence to contain involuntary hospital patients. Hawes said patients would stay there for an average of eight to 10 months before returning to their communities.

United States District Court Judge Christina Reiss speaks at a dedication ceremony for a new mental health facility on the grounds of the former Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center in Essex on Friday, October 15, 2021.

“If you want people to be able to come out and not run away, you have to have that,” said Connie Stabler of South Burlington, an activist with a loved one with schizophrenia. It may seem odd or even archaic to some, Stabler said, but it can be difficult to keep a person safe from certain types of mental health episodes. Her relative, for example, is known to run out of buildings while screaming in the middle of the night.

Heads of mental health services intended to seek approval for involuntary medication and isolation in the facility, which state law only allows in hospitals. They dropped the idea after an outcry from activists and elected officials, Hawes said.

This change in strategy has been a relief for Stabler and others whose loved ones have been hospitalized. Stabler, who also volunteers with the Vermont chapter of the National Alliance On Mental Health, said the use of restraints would have changed the dynamics of the new facility.

“It would have made it just another hospital,” she said.

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