It felt like overkill to Marty Mohn.

A 61-year-old grandmother who copes with a serious mental illness, Mohn sought extra help last month. But as she sat in a hospital's psychiatric unit, she knew she didn't need such a high level of care.

"I was taking up a bed in a facility that is for people who are far more ill than I was," Mohn said. "What I really needed was a safe haven for a day or two to regroup."

Lancaster County has long had a need for a short-stay mental health center for adults. Now, the need is being addressed.

In early March, a 10-bed, acute crisis diversion facility is scheduled to open at 800 New Holland Ave. Staffed by nurses and mental health professionals, the center is for adults with Medical Assistance who face a psychiatric crisis that doesn't rise to the level of a hospital stay.

Patients will enter voluntarily, stay up to five days and engage with staff to get through the crisis and return home.

The hope is patients will feel better served and the state will avoid unnecessary hospital charges.

Acute crisis diversion refers to diverting from the hospital people who are in turmoil but who aren't a danger to themselves or others.

Lancaster County's Crisis Intervention hotline staff will serve as gatekeepers. They will assess callers' needs and refer appropriate patients to the center, said Julie Holtry, the deputy mental health director for the county.

During their stay, patients will participate in therapy, but be able to leave the center for medical appointments or supportive programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

"We don't want to compromise what's working well for an individual," Holtry said.

Avoiding the hospital, jail

Mental health consumers here have long asked for a place less intensive than a hospital to work through a crisis.

But people in crisis often ended up in a hospital or jail, said Jan Baily, director of Mental Health America of Lancaster County.

"I would be one to applaud (the county's behavioral health agency) for having the vision to bring this proven program to Lancaster," Baily said. "They did their homework."

The homework included listening sessions with mental health patients and their families who pointed to the lack of a short-stay crisis center as a gap in services.

State approval

Lancaster County's behavioral health agency explored investing $1.2 million in surplus managed care funds to pay for start-up costs for a crisis center. The five-county Capital Area Behavioral Health Collaborative backed the proposal, and the state gave it the green light, Holtry said.

Exton-based Holcomb Behavioral Health Systems won the contract. It is renovating 13,000 square feet of vacant office space behind the Grandview Plaza business center in Manheim Township.

Holcomb has run Chester County's diversion center for six years, Holcomb executive Bill DiFabio said.

"We try to make it as homelike as possible" with cozy bedrooms, a library and an attractive dining room, DiFabio said.

For ongoing patient care, Holcomb will bill either PerformCare, which is a behavioral health managed care company, or the county's behavioral health agency.

The all-inclusive $456.42 daily charge covers psychiatric evaluations, medications, group and individual therapy and meals.

Enough beds?

Considering the county has a caseload of about 4,000 adults with a severe mental illness, will 10 beds meet the need?

"I don't know that we'll have the answer to that until we open the doors," Holtry said, "but we felt comfortable 10 would be an appropriate number."

If needed, the building has space for some expansion.

When a mental health crisis is triggered by conflict, missed medications, a holiday or the anniversary of a traumatic event, a patient's coping mechanism can begin to fray.

"This acute diversion center gives those of us with a mental health journey a chance to catch ourselves early in the process of the breakdown, to get help and to go forward again," said Mohn, who is also a mental health peer educator. "You don't have to fall completely."

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