Solving a crisis: Lakeland Regional Health aims to grow mental health services with new center

Polk County

LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) – Polk County is not immune to the nation’s growing mental health crisis and bed shortage. But a plan to build a 96-bed facility at Lakeland Regional Health aims to treat the mentally ill and save lives.

“It is hard for me every day to not have enough beds and enough appointments to treat the people that we want to care for and help in our community,” said Alice Nuttall, the director of behavioral health at Lakeland Regional Health.

The planned Center for Behavioral Health & Wellness will house both inpatient and outpatient services for children, adolescents and adults. Services include emergency stabilization services, treatment for substance abuse disorders and memory disorders.

Courtesy: Lakeland Regional Health

In 2018, patients came to Lakeland Regional Health more than 5,400 times for emergency mental health services, also known as Baker Act cases.

The ratio of the Polk County population to mental health providers is 1,400 to 1, according to Lakeland Regional Health.

“All the tremendous clinicians that are in Lakeland, that are in Polk County, the request for their services is just higher. We’re in a scarcity model where we don’t have enough to reach all the lives that need help,” said Nuttall.

The mission of the new center will focus on not only emergency services but overall mental health wellness to prevent suffering.

The center will include three one-story buildings designed around the “therapeutic and healing properties of natural light,” the press release announcing the plans reads.

Courtesy: Lakeland Regional Health

“How do we help people be resilient?” asked Nuttall, who will lead the new Center. “How do we prevent suicide and how do we touch people sooner in their communities before they get down the path of it being a crisis?”

One in five people suffer from a treatable mental health disorder, according to Nuttall.

“One of the largest issues that we have in the criminal justice system is dealing with those that are significantly mentally ill,” said Sheriff Grady Judd. “If we can help them and improve their quality of life, just maybe they won’t commit crime and end up in the county jail.”

While not all people with mental illness commit crimes, Sheriff Judd does see a connection. He says 80% of crimes are committed by people who are drug dependent and/or suffer from mental illness.

“Clearly and unequivocally whenever someone is on their medication and is receiving counseling, their quality of life improves and traditionally they commit less crimes,” said Sheriff Judd.

He believes the Center for Behavioral Health & Wellness is a step forward.

Lakeland Regional Health still must acquire certain permits from the city of Lakeland before the plan is finalized but representatives are confident they have support from the city.

If all goes as planned, construction could be wrapped up by 2021.

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