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Michaelle Vega-Hernandez, now a certified peer support and wellness specialist with the Douglas County Community Mental Health Center, struggled with mental health issues. Now she helps people like her. Sarpy County is in the early stages of creating a short-term mental health crisis center to help people with experiences similar to Vega-Hernandez’s.

Omaha-area police and hospital emergency room personnel face a heavy burden in trying to help individuals with mental health or substance abuse problems. Because our area is short of inpatient beds for such residents, many individuals in crisis due to mental illness or drug or alcohol dependency regularly wind up in county jails or emergency rooms.

The Sarpy County government is commendably taking farsighted action to address the need through its plans to build a mental health crisis center. The $13 million center, with 22,000 to 25,000 square feet of space, would be the first such facility in the state. It’s a much-needed, pioneering step.

An average of 28 percent of the Sarpy County Jail’s inmates at any given time have a diagnosed serious mental illness, The World-Herald’s Reece Ristau reports. A study found similar numbers for the Douglas County Jail; 34 percent of inmates had an acute-level mental illness, 27 percent screened positive for post-traumatic stress disorder and 29 percent had a substance abuse disorder.

As Sarpy County Board Chairman Don Kelly put it, ”The de facto mental health centers are now your jails, correctional centers and your emergency rooms in Nebraska, and that’s just not acceptable. These people that are having psychiatric crises, they need help.”

The planned Sarpy facility would be available to all Sarpy County law enforcement agencies, as well as those in Cass, Dodge, Douglas and Washington Counties. Many of the specifics, including the number of beds and how the center will be funded, have yet to be decided.

Dr. Scott Madden, medical director of the emergency room at Nebraska Medicine-Bellevue, routinely sees the difficulties that present conditions mean for his hospital. An emergency room is “kind of the dumping ground for those patients, because unfortunately they have nowhere to go,” Madden said, given the heavy demand for inpatient beds at facilities such as CHI Health Immanuel or Lasting Hope Recovery Center. “There’s so many mental health issues in Sarpy and Douglas that these places are always full.”

About 40 patients with mental health or substance abuse challenges arrive each month at his hospital’s ER. Those who require treatment at an inpatient facility stay at the hospital an average of 15 hours while they wait for an inpatient spot to open up elsewhere.

An encouraging development in Nebraska is the use of telehealth services, by which a psychiatrist or psychologist can connect with patients and recommend treatment options.

Positive, too, is Nebraska’s participation in a 23-state project, funded by federal grants, to create a centralized registry so medical and law enforcement staff can see the current status of local inpatient psychiatric beds. The registry would be far more efficient than current conditions, in which hospital staff have to call individual facilities to check for available beds. Nebraska’s registry will be piloted in Region 6, made up of Douglas, Sarpy, Cass, Washington and Dodge Counties.

These constructive steps are to be applauded. They will help patients receive care and relieve part of the burden on local law enforcement and medical staff.

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