Special Reports

DA County center for mental health still vacant four years after completion

Mental Health Special Report

LAS CRUCES, New Mexico - A center to help people suffering from a mental illness cost Dona Ana County $2 million, but eight years after it was envisioned and four years after it was built, the building is still vacant.

ABC-7's New Mexico Mobile Newsroom spoke with Susan Campbell, an employee at Mesilla Valley Community of Hope. You'd never notice judging by the many awards surrounding her desk, but Campbell still deals with mental illness today.

"I start going out of reality and things aren't right," she said.

The 69-year-old, who's journey started 20 years ago after losing her job in California, has learned to control her illness.

"I ended up hallucinating," Campbell said. "I was told in my voices that the mother ship was coming down and taking me to another planet. I ended up half naked in a garbage pile on the side of the road."

Campbell says she was jailed and spent 32 days in a psychiatric ward. "They never talked to me, they never assessed me. They asked me once if I was suicidal and I said no," she said.

218 people diagnosed with a mental illness are currently in the Dona Ana County Detention Center. That's where the $2 million crisis triage center comes in. 

"The designated purpose is to reduce the number of people in the jail that have a mental health condition," Dona Ana County's Director of Health and Human Services Jamie Michael said.

Four years after it was completed, the center is nothing but empty rooms and empty chairs.

Michael says when the city and county leased Memorial Medical Center, the company paid the full 40 year lease amount. She says the city and county each got 50 percent. It was the money the country received from that company that was used to build the crisis triage center.

Michael say, originally, the facility was intended to accept walk-ins. In 2013, commissioners decided it should only serve people in law enforcement protective custody. That's when two companies who had an interest in running it backed out.

Michael says a third company, La Frontera, was also interested, but soon announced it was shuttering its New Mexico services. She says other providers are concerned the center couldn't be sustained.

Michal says when medical criteria was applied to the nearly 300 cases seen at Memorial Medical Center in a 9 month period, approximately 75 percent were not healthy enough to be transported to a center other than a hospital emergency room. She says that would leave about 75 people that could potentially be transported to the crisis triage center. That's approximately 8 people a month who would go there for treatment, in a 9 month period.

The crisis triage center is supposed to be a place where law enforcers can bring people suffering from mental illness for treatment, if the individual is causing harm to himself or others.

Sergeant Robert McCord with the Las Cruces Police Department says officers respond to a lot of calls dealing with someone who is potentially suffering from a mental illness.

"I can almost venture to say probably 60 percent at least of our calls involve mental health," McCord said, adding officers also spend a lot of time waiting with patients in emergency rooms.

"It disrupts our staffing to have an officer dedicate 4 to 6 hours," he said.

The county and city recently spent $50,000 combined on a study to look into building a public mental health hospital, but some advocates call the transition from emergency room, to court, to back on the streets a never ending cycle.

The hope is the $2 million crisis triage center could help. Michael says the county is doing everything it can to find the right fit.

"This building will be put to good use," Michael said.

As for Campbell, she says the center could be helpful for people dealing with the same situation she went through.

"Nobody talked to me," she said "Nobody sat and asked, 'what are you going through?'"

If you would like to learn more about additional resources to deal with mental health issues, below are a few links:

LINK: The Stepping Up Initiative

LINK: Dona Ana County Health and Human Services

LINK: Healthy Paso Del Norte


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