‘THIS IS A MESS’: Merit Health River Region closes mental health unit, creating ‘crisis’ for Warren County

Published 3:32 pm Friday, July 14, 2023

The closing of Merit Health River Region’s behavior health unit is causing a crisis for the county officials who are responsible for getting people with mental health problems to a facility for treatment.

River Region’s behavioral health unit officially closed on June 30, and its 50 beds were transferred to Merit Health Central Mississippi in Jackson, which means a person in Vicksburg requiring treatment for mental health issues will have to go there or another facility.

“It’s going to be a great hardship on this entire community,” Warren County Sheriff Martin Pace said of the unit’s closure. “For a community the size of Vicksburg and Warren County not to have a mental health facility to adequately treat those with mental illnesses is a shame.”

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Logistical Challenges

Pace said deputies serve court orders to pick people up on mental health writs from Warren County Chancery Court, which under state law is responsible for dealing with mental health cases and commitments. Before June 30, he said, the deputies took the patients to the behavioral health unit at River Region’s West Campus.

The loss of the unit, he said, immediately affected the department’s logistics involving the transportation of patients who are committed to treatment facilities by court order.

“Sheriff’s offices in Mississippi are the agents of the court that serve the court orders of all of the county’s courts, including chancery court,” Pace said. “Chancery court has the authority to commit someone to a mental health facility by court order if their mental illness is posing an imminent threat to themselves or others.”

The loss of River Region’s behavioral unit, he said, means deputies will have to serve the court’s order to pick up a person for a mental health evaluation, take them to a facility in Jackson or another part of the state and then bring them back to Vicksburg for their commitment hearing, where doctors would present a report on the patient’s evaluation.

“And then if the court commits the person to that same facility or another facility, then we would have to transport the person to that facility,” Pace said. “And without one being in Vicksburg, we’re talking about multiple trips back and forth to Jackson or some other city where an adequate mental health facility exists.”

‘They had no availability’

Finding a facility to place patients was part of the hardship that hit Thursday.

Chancery Clerk Donna Hardy said Friday morning she and several deputy clerks spent most of Thursday trying to locate beds for mental health patients who are awaiting treatment.

“We just don’t have anything in place because we have been using River Region for about three decades,” Hardy said. “We’re starting over. The resources that we thought were available, that used to be there, are gone.”

Hardy said some of the other facilities the county has used in the past are either closing or have narrowed the scope of their services.

While she would prefer to make a smooth transfer from to get mental health patients to Central Mississippi, Hardy said, “That wasn’t happening (Thursday).

“It boiled down to they had no availability,” she said. “People were lining up, they have waiting lists; people were in the emergency room waiting to be placed. (Merit Health Central) is the only one that we could find that is even taking (patients) right now, but they’re full.”

What happens when someone’s in crisis

Besides a commitment, a person can voluntarily submit themselves for treatment at a mental health facility. Pace said if officers responding to a disturbance call determine an individual is having a mental health crisis, they can have paramedics take the person to the River Region emergency room and an emergency room physician can admit the individual to a mental health facility for 72 hours for evaluation.

The person is taken by a hospital ambulance to the facility.

“My concern is now, rather than that person being transported usually by ambulance from River Region on U.S. 61 North to the west campus on the Frontage Road, now it’s the ambulance (service) or the hospital’s responsibility for transportation,” Pace said. “At that point, the people that are going have to be transported out of the community; they’re going have to go to Jackson or wherever they can find a place that will be able to house them.”

And Pace said there is another concern.

“If a person goes to the emergency room here at River Region and they’re in a mental health crisis, the doctor has the ambulance transport them to Central Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson,” he said. “So two days later, they’ve gotten them back on their medication; they’ve leveled out and it’s time to discharge them from the hospital. Unless they have somebody there to pick them up, that discharge means they’re going to walk out the door to Highway 18 in Jackson.”

Hospital issues a response

According to Merit Health, the decision to move behavioral health from River Region was part of a company plan to reduce the duplication of services across its region.

In 2022, Merit Health officials filed a certificate of need application with the state to transfer the 50 behavioral health beds from the Merit Health River Region West Campus to Merit Health Central in Jackson. That transfer was completed on June 30.

While the distance is further for Vicksburg/Warren County patients, (patients) will receive treatment in a newer facility, and this increases our overall capacity to provide critically needed behavioral health services for the region,” company officials said.

Merit Health spokesperson Alicia Carpenter said River Region is nearing the end of its 10-month-long project to consolidate the adult, chemical dependency and adolescent behavioral health services at Merit Health Central in Jackson.

“The initial phase of implementation began earlier this month when Merit Health Central started accepting all new adult behavioral health and chemical dependency admissions,” she said. “Merit Health River Region continues to accept adolescent and geriatric behavioral patients until the consolidation is completed, which is expected to be around Aug. 1.”

She said the hospital’s geriatric behavioral health services are moving from the West campus to the main hospital campus.

Are Community Mental Health Centers the answer?

Hardy said the long-term solution to the problem may be through the community mental health centers across the state. River Ridge CMHC is located in Warren County and includes facilities in Claiborne County, Natchez and Fayette.

“But we’ve got a lot of planning to do,” Hardy said, pointing out that with River Region’s facility gone, there will need to be more coordination between public officials and regional mental health facilities to develop a plan to meet the county’s need for making a smooth transition to get mental health cases treatment.

The chancery clerk’s office, she said, “Cannot be a mini admissions clinic; we’re going to have to have help so we can go on and fulfill the rest of our responsibilities to the, to the community — land and court and tax and all that.

“What’s going to be on the table right now is what all we can do to collaborate together as the Chancery Clerk’s office and River Ridge,” she added. “We are really going to have to sit down together and see what we can do that is best for the citizens of Warren County to get them the help they need.

“The biggest problem in mental health is time, time, time, time. Once a family comes in to try to have a person committed and fills out an affidavit, we really need to turn that around in a matter of a couple of days, not a darn couple of weeks. And that’s what’s scaring us, is we need that rapid turnaround because that is a sensitive issue.”

“It’s just a mess,” Pace said. “I mean, it’s just a total mess that they have thrown in our lap. For those that have a mental illness or the family members of persons that have a mental illness, this could be devastating if there’s no place in Vicksburg where a loved one can be hospitalized to treat their mental illness and stabilize them. I think it’s just sad that a community and Warren County have been left without any mental health facility.”

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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