Local officials, activists react to South Bend’s announcement it will fund crisis centerBl

Marek Mazurek | South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The city of South Bend’s announcement on Tuesday that it would provide the initial funding for a behavioral crisis center was a relief for some community leaders who feared the plan was dead after St. Joseph County Commissioners declined to approve funding for the project in December.

The city earmarked more than $2.6 million for the facility, which officials have been planning for the past two years. Oaklawn Psychiatric Center will operate the center when it opens in late spring.

In an interview Wednesday, South Bend Police Chief Scott Ruszkowski said his department responded to 913 calls in 2022 involving a known mental health issue and another 339 calls involving a suicidal person.

“It’s a shame that we had to be put in this predicament, but thanks to the mayor’s tenacity in working through two holidays, we were able to keep the proverbial ball moving,” Ruszkowski said.

For Ruszkowski, the need for a crisis center goes beyond his professional capacity because, he said, his cousin recently took his own life. Although “there’s seldom any answers” with suicide, Ruszkowski said, the existence of a crisis center may have helped his cousin.

St. Joseph County Sheriff Bill Redman, who has been a vocal supporter of the crisis center, also praised the city’s move.

“I was extremely pleased to see the steps that the city of South Bend and Mayor (James) Mueller have taken to make sure this does in fact, hopefully, take off,” Redman said in an interview Tuesday.

The Tribune published a Viewpoint by the sheriff Wednesday in which he said the crisis center “is vital to our community and to our police department” and that he planned to ask the county council and commissioners to reallocate the money planned for the center.

“In law enforcement we try to be trained in all aspects of our jobs,” Redman told The Tribune on Tuesday. “But one thing we are not is professional mental health experts, and that’s where we need individuals in the crisis center to help us in that mission of making sure the community is safe struggling with mental health crisis.”

The proposed crisis center will have 14 beds and is being built within the existing Epworth Hospital in downtown South Bend. The center will focus on emergency mental health care and will treat walk-in patients for a period of 24 hours, giving those suffering from mental crises an alternative to the emergency room or jail.

“It’s an urgent care or emergency department for people having a mental health crisis,” explained Kelli Liechty, Oaklawn’s vice president of access and crisis services. She said the center will be staffed by a multidisciplinary team of social workers, peer counselors and psychiatrists who can prescribe medication as needed for incoming patients.

“I think we’re really encouraged,” Leichty said. “We’ve been working hard with community partners and this is such a valuable crisis center and our county needs this. So we’re thrilled that the city would step in and commit the funding.”

While still relieved about the news, others still see risks that come with the city’s “crunch time” announcement.

“One year is better than nothing,” Ruskowski said. “The only issue I see with that is it almost appears to be a rushing. And when you rush things, things get missed, and I don’t think you can afford to have things missed when it comes to people’s wellbeing or their life.” 

County concerns

Though South Bend had previously pledged its support for the crisis center, the project was put into doubt last month when St. Joseph County Commissioners moved to table a vote on a contract for the center at a meeting where more than two dozen people spoke in favor of a mental health center.

Mueller was at that meeting and told The Tribune that the funding announcement this week was needed to make the crisis center a reality.

“We’re making sure this project stayed on track,” Mueller said, noting that the $2.66 million in ARP funding was approved by the South Bend Common Council in October 2021.

‘Somebody is dying’:Advocates protest commissioners pausing mental health crisis center

St. Joseph County Health Officer Dr. Bob Einterz, another vocal supporter of the center, praised Mueller’s willingness to provide the necessary funding.

“Mayor Mueller’s decision demonstrates his commitment to improving the health and safety of our community,” Einterz said in a written statement. “He is a leader who listens to the people and responds to their needs.”

Late last month, Einterz announced he would resign as county health officer, in part because the commissioners declined to vote on funding for the center.

Members of the group Faith in Indiana praised Mueller’s decision to step in but noted the center’s funding beyond the first year of operation is still up in the air. The hope is that the newly elected county council will reappropriate the funds for operations beyond the first year and commissioners will approve the request.

“I think it’s confusing and people don’t necessarily recognize the two different funding structures. It might be easy to confuse it and say, ‘It’s all good.’ We still need the county council to reappropriate funds and we still need the county commissioners to approve the reappropriated funds,” said Rebekah Go, who has been involved with Faith In Indiana‘s efforts to make the center a reality.

Commissioners Carl Baxmeyer and Derek Dieter did not return calls seeking comment on the city’s announcement, though Go said Faith in Indiana leaders had a productive meeting with Baxmeyer on Tuesday.

Mueller also said the city is still willing to work with the county on funding for the crisis center and other mental health collaborations. However, he feels the sentiment expressed by commissioners that individual measures on mental health can’t move forward unless a wholistic plan is in place is misguided.

“Some of the things I heard were, ‘We can’t move forward with anything until we solve everything.’ If we can’t get started, we’ll never do anything,” Mueller said.

Commissioner Deb Fleming told The Tribune on Tuesday that she’s supportive of funding the center. She said she would support a proposal at the commissioners’ level should the council approve funding.

“We have the new members of the council, and I’d like to go, you know, catch up more with what they’re doing,” Fleming said. “Hopefully, we can all work together to make the right things happen.”

With the city now assuming the risk of paying for the construction and buildout of the crisis center, Mueller hopes elected county officials can see the benefits of the center as they decide on future funding.

“Now we can move forward with the center and they can see the operations and see this is a great investment for them to make as a county. In my mind, this does take off some of the risk they may be worried about,” Mueller said.

Beyond St. Joseph County, officials have expressed optimism that additional state resources for mental health care will become available in upcoming legislative sessions, including the one starting next week.

Some lawmakers have said they will introduce legislation adopting the recommendations from the Indiana Behavioral Health Commission, which call for a 60% increase in mental health funding over the next two years. Some form of increased spending on mental health also appears to have support from the governor’s office, with Gov. Eric Holcomb telling reporters, “out of compassion or competitive nature, we have to improve.”

“My hope is not only the city and the county stepping up locally, but the state of Indiana will also step up to provide funding for these types of crisis centers and other mental health issues,” Redman said.

Read the full article at the South Bend Tribune

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