Officials hope mental health facility can reduce burden on hospitals, jails

Washington County Receiving Center will help offset law enforcement and health care burdens with proper care.

(Alastair Lee Bitsóí | The Salt Lake Tribune) Washington County Commissioner Adam Snow reveals the $2.5 million Washington County Receiving Center for community members in the county suffering from mental health and substance abuse issues.

Washington City • Can better mental health care cut down on the number of people who end up in the hospital or in jail? That’s the promise of a $2.5 million mental health facility being built to serve Utahns in crisis in the south of the state.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox broke ground on the Washington County Receiving Center on Friday with representatives from state, county, law enforcement agencies and mental health providers in attendance.

The facility, which will be completed in the next eight months, will offer social detox for those with substance abuse problems, beds for those needing more long-term care and crisis response teams.

“For far too long, we’ve been asking our law enforcement officers to do things that are not their responsibility and put them in terrible situations,” Cox said, adding that local police often carry the burden of being mental health therapists in addition to responding to crises.

Cox said the state is working to fill gaps in mental health access, including by creating a mobile crisis outreach team to de-escalate situations. The receiving center will help fill the gap between de-escalation and long-term care — a 23-hour period where people are often waiting for help but out of jail or the hospital.

Cox called the receiving center in Washington County an urgent care clinic for those needing mental health services.

“Thank you for caring, thank you for caring for people,” Cox said to the crowd of nearly a hundred. “It is the most fiscally responsible thing to do. It’s actually going to save taxpayer money and it is also the most humane thing to do. It will help people get better.”

Washington County Sheriff Nate Brooksby said the county needs the receiving center. As a police force, the county jail staff has learned to identify persons in the community with mental health issues that end up behind bars that do not need to be there, he said.

“We have tried to figure out how to treat these people,” Brooksby said, noting that contracted mental health therapists, nurses, doctors and social workers treat an already full jail.

Rather than taking someone to jail on a trespass charge, that person can instead go to the receiving center to understand his or her behavior before being punished by the law, Brooksby said.

The mental health facility is a joint partnership with the state, county and private health centers like Intermountain Health Care. The state has allocated about $2 million for the facility and will provide treatment training and resources to the facility’s staff, Sen. Evan Vickers, R-Cedar City, said.

“It is a really good policy move,” the senator said. “It is a good treatment option, and I think a really positive thing for mental health in southern Utah.”

A center in Davis County is the model for the facility in Washington County, Vickers added.

Dr. Aaron Vasquez, an inpatient psychiatrist at St. George Regional Medical Center, says that the receiving center will be a place to intervene in a mental health crisis early in the healing process, rather than when a person needs acute care.

“I think all the ailments that we are facing are societal,” Vasquez said, before adding that the proposed mental health center will break down barriers to care. “We have become more isolated as a culture. We go from one box to our house then go to another box with wheels and another box at work, then back to our box at home.”

The culture of isolation will not change by the new facility, but it will be a starting point of community care, Vasquez said.

Cox also visited Hurricane Family Pharmacy, the first facility to give COVID-19 vaccines in southern Utah, to learn more about how the local pharmacy has helped fight the pandemic.