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McEntee: Psychiatric hospital expansion needed now more than ever

Published May 26, 2010 5:39 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Last Friday night, five people walked into the University Neuropsychiatric Institute, every one of them suicidal but possessing enough will to live to seek help.

It happens nearly every day at UNI, a free-standing center in Salt Lake City's Research Park whose staff cares for people of all ages and with every imaginable mental illness or addiction, with in-patient and out-patient services.

I know and care about UNI because its doctors, psychologists, social workers, nutritionists and all the other professionals saved the life of one of my dearest friends.

These days, though, it's too small to handle the demand that grows along with Utah's population. Even with 90 beds, dozens of people are on its waiting list. And sometimes staff must send desperate people to a hospital emergency room or keep them safe in house until a bed becomes available.

So this summer, UNI will launch a fundraiser to help build an 80-bed, state-of-the-art addition. Although UNI operates in conjunction with University Hospital and the medical school, it is funded solely by its clinical income.

"It was bad this weekend," said Ross VanVranken, UNI's top administrator, adding that late winter and early spring bring the greatest demand for help.

"You have to triage as best you can," he said. "We get them in as fast as we can."

UNI admits between 250 and 300 people a month, and offers outpatient treatment to up to 150. The average stay lasts nine or 10 days.

VanVranken and Mary Talboys, a clinical social worker and associate administrator, have worked at UNI since it opened in 1986. Talboys would like to see a discrete women's unit for those with eating disorders or postpartum depression, or who fear men due to physical or mental abuse.

She also yearns for an education unit to help people understand they can come for help before trouble turns into a crisis.

On Tuesday, Talboys took me on a limited tour past the Kidstar room, for 7- to 12-year old children, and Teenscope, where adolescents are cared for. There's a half-gym and a dining area with windows on the Salt Lake Valley.

Appropriately, Talboys doesn't take me upstairs to the inpatient rooms. But I've been there before.

In January 2007, we got a message at home from a friend we thought we'd lost forever. Will had dropped out of our lives 12 years before, so his call was startling but welcome.

Will was at UNI, where he'd been taken after friends found him unconscious in an unheated room in a house in Beaver. His core temperature was about 95 degrees; it's amazing he hadn't died.

But he wanted to, he told me Wednesday. "I actively didn't want to live anymore."

Will had spent all those years living hard among hard people, using drugs, hitting the booze and driving long-haul trucks until he got so sick he couldn't do it anymore. It was luck, he said, that the ER at the Beaver hospital decided to send him to UNI.

He stayed for two or three weeks, seeing a psychiatrist every day, getting his medications adjusted and eating well enough to put a little meat on his tall, bony frame. My husband and I visited him at UNI, bringing him smokes and listening to him talk about his life since last we'd seen him.

Will particularly liked the privileges he earned at UNI when he left suicide watch. "It was lockdown, but I could go out and smoke or walk around the grounds. As much as they could, they gave you freedom."

Will's still receiving psychiatric and medical care at Valley Mental Health and living in an Alliance House apartment. He does worry about people who leave UNI with only a vague idea about where they can go.

There are a lot of Wills in Utah, which is why I'm hoping the fundraiser can help make that expansion happen -- and not a moment too soon.

Peg McEntee is a columnist. Reach her at

pegmcentee@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">pegmcentee@sltrib.com