Liberty County leaders looking in easing the mental health problem are exploring what it would it take to build a standalone facility.
Mental health was judged to be one of the most important topics facing the county at last fall’s community retreat.
“It is a very, very serious subject we have to deal with here in Liberty County and in the state of Georgia,” Sheriff Will Bowman said at last week’s mid-year retreat. “It is a big issue, especially now since the pandemic is over.”
Bowman said what has been happening on the state level is a lot of passing the buck.
“Now, we have nowhere for our mental health patients to go,” he said. “A lot of people shy away from mental health because they are embarrassed. But it is very serious.’
Bowman pushed for building a 10-bed inpatient mental health unit.
“Where are we and what can we do as a county? Build our own facility,” he said. “I think that would help us out tremendously.”
Such a facility, Bowman acknowledged, has a projected cost of $4 million and where funding for it would come is unknown.
But the need exists, officials reiterated.
“We have got to address mental health,” Liberty Regional Medical Center CEO Tammy Mims said Thursday in her address to Chamber of Commerce members on the local state of health care. “We have great outpatient services. But we are missing an inpatient side.”
Bowman said many people in mental crisis often wind up in his deputies’ custody.
“Our jail is overrun with mental health (cases),” Mims said. “We have had a lot of employees being attacked and getting injuries from psych patients getting unruly.”
Bowman detailed just how much calls that involve someone in mental health crisis impact his office. Last year, he had 356 inmates who saw a mental health counselor and 361 mental health patients. The jail also had 119 inmates going through detoxification.
“That’s two deputies. That’s two deputies we don’t have in the county,” Bowman said.
Another obstacle occurs when deputies take a person in crisis to a facility — and they are told there is no room for them.
“There is no guarantee once we get them to that facility that that bed will be there,” he said.
Bowman added Walthourville Police Chief Chris Reed told him that he deals with at least three mental health patients a day.
“Just because someone has (a mental health issue) doesn’t mean they belong in jail,” Bowman added. “Jail is not the place for them.”
Outpatient care in Liberty County is available and has been busy. The Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic has had 122 clients in just six months, with another 87 waiting. The Fraser Counseling Center saw 393 people last year, and Diversity Health Clinic recorded treating 506 mental health patients seen last year.
Stephanie Jones-Heath, CEO of Diversity Health Center, said one of their biggest problems is noshows for appointments, and patients not complying when they do come in.
“Usually when they come in, they are in crisis and we can’t treat that,” she said. “Our biggest need for us right now is additional staffing and additional training for staff for those patients who come in in crisis.”
Bowman also emphasized that drugs are a problem in the county. Liberty County is a transfer spot for drugs headed elsewhere, the sheriff — a former state trooper — pointed out.
“Everybody seems to think we don’t have a drug problem in Liberty County. Please stop saying that,” he said. “Liberty County is a hub for drugs coming down south. We’re centrally located. Once it leaves Atlanta, it’s coming here. It’s serious drugs coming down 95, coming off 16. Trust me, people, it’s here.”
Bowman also called for more transportation to take mental health patients to the care they need and for more providers. The 10bed inpatient facility envisioned could have a doctor and two other providers.
Bowman also speculated neighboring counties would ask to use it as well.
“Once we get that building,” he said, “it will pay for itself.”