BEMIDJI -- Local efforts to increase the Bemidji area's mental health care infrastructure took another step forward Wednesday.

Around 85 community members sought shelter from the wind and rain in a large tent along Hannah Avenue on Oct. 13 to break ground on Sanford's new $6.2 million Behavioral Health Crisis Center. Once completed, the 12,000 square-foot facility will be the first center to offer adult inpatient hospital psychiatric beds within 90 miles of Bemidji.

The center will also be the first to feature an Emergency Psychiatric Assessment Treatment and Healing, or EmPATH, unit for adults, children and adolescents. With the EmPATH unit, the center will be able to provide adults and adolescents outpatient crisis care.

The center will also offer continued assessment, individualized treatment planning, access to multi-disciplinary teams, immediate psychiatric services, collaboration with primary care physicians and access to medical interventions. In total, the facility will have eight inpatient beds.

"After this past year and a half, I think all of us understand having support close to home, especially in times of crisis," Susan Jarvis, Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota president and CEO, said at the head of the ceremony. "For patients experiencing a behavioral health crisis close to home, this could not only save their life, but for many, it's a step toward improving their quality of life, by getting them immediate access to the help they need."

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Susan Jarvis, president of Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota, gives a project overview ahead of a groundbreaking ceremony on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, for Sanford’s new Behavioral Health Crisis Center. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
Susan Jarvis, president of Sanford Health of Northern Minnesota, gives a project overview ahead of a groundbreaking ceremony on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, for Sanford’s new Behavioral Health Crisis Center. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

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County partnership

Sanford Health's partner in the project is Beltrami County. To fund the facility, Beltrami county assisted in successfully applying for a $3.65 million grant from the Minnesota Department of Health's Crisis Bond Project.

Additionally, through the county, the project received $1.45 million in federal funds from the American Rescue Plan Act. The remainder of the project is being funded by the Sanford Health Foundation of Northern Minnesota.

"This is a wonderful collaborative partnership between the county, the state of Minnesota and of course Sanford Health," Beltrami County Administrator Tom Barry said. "This project is a testament to the things our community can do when we come together for a common cause."

Beltrami County Administrator Thomas Barry speaks about the county’s involvement in making Sanford’s new Behavioral Health Crisis Center a reality during a groundbreaking ceremony on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
Beltrami County Administrator Thomas Barry speaks about the county’s involvement in making Sanford’s new Behavioral Health Crisis Center a reality during a groundbreaking ceremony on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

"Together, we're taking that next step in addressing this critical community need," Barry added. "This crisis center will provide much-needed services in our community and have profound positive impacts for patients and their family members."

Behavioral health needs

Health officials on Wednesday noted the mental health treatment needs, citing how Sanford's Bemidji Medical Center sees an average of six mental health patients per day. Sanford's Bemidji Mobile Crisis Unit also saw a 23% increase in encounters during 2019-2020 and an additional 44% increase from 2020-2021.

Sanford Health also had a total of 406 patients in crisis requiring inpatient psychiatric care in 2020, and the closest facility with that treatment capacity is 90 miles away.

Karla Eischens, vice president of operations for Sanford Health in Bemidji, speaks about the background of Sanford’s new Behavioral Health Crisis Center during a groundbreaking ceremony on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
Karla Eischens, vice president of operations for Sanford Health in Bemidji, speaks about the background of Sanford’s new Behavioral Health Crisis Center during a groundbreaking ceremony on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

"The escalating behavioral health and mental health challenges in our community have taken their toll on infrastructure not intended to address those needs," Barry said. "Our hospital is not designed or staffed to serve the growing population of patients in a mental health crisis. Our county jail, often the place of last resort for those in crisis, was also not designed, staffed or capable to serve patients."

Those experiencing a mental health emergency and ending up at the jail are what pushed former Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp to advocate at the Minnesota Legislature for more behavioral health facilities. Hodapp said the issues originated from the state closing its mental health hospitals.

"The idea was that they were going to create smaller, community mental health care facilities, which is a good idea," Hodapp said. "The problem is, that never happened. So the problem was people in mental health crises wound up getting arrested.

"Because of that, we just kept saying we need to have community resources so they don't wind up in custody and places they won't get the care they need. So we continued working with the Legislature for many years to provide money to our area and the rest of the state."

Attendees clap during a groundbreaking ceremony on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, for Sanford’s new Behavioral Health Crisis Center. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
Attendees clap during a groundbreaking ceremony on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, for Sanford’s new Behavioral Health Crisis Center. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

A major victory on that front came with the opening of the PrimeWest Residential Support Center in 2019. The 6,800 square-foot facility is at 3124 Hannah Ave. NW, adjacent to where the new crisis center will be.

Planning for the project went back to 2016 when the Legislature approved $2 million for Beltrami County to invest in mental health treatment programs. Two years later, PrimeWest Health, which owned the building, donated the facility to the county.

The county then invested $1.2 million of the state funding into remodeling the building into a care facility with 14 beds, which it leases to Sanford Health for $1. As the leaseholder, Sanford Health also invested $1.5 million in the PrimeWest facility.

Community members broke ground on Sanford’s new Behavioral Health Crisis Center on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. The center is set to open in fall 2022 at 3220 Hannah Avenue Northwest. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
Community members broke ground on Sanford’s new Behavioral Health Crisis Center on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. The center is set to open in fall 2022 at 3220 Hannah Avenue Northwest. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

'A gap in crisis services'

Jay Coughenour, regional administrator of Sanford Behavioral Health, said the new facility and PrimeWest represents an important continuum of care for the area.

"We already have a vast array of community-based mental health services, but as a result of our local needs assessment, a gap in crisis services was identified," Coughenour said. "We recognize the needs of our population are vast, and to be able to meet people where they are, you have to have significant bandwidth. So the more services we have the better we are at meeting people and their needs."

To ensure those services are provided, several of those involved with the project said collaboration has been and will continue to be highly important.

"I don't think we can overemphasize the partnerships we've had for this process," Coughenour said. "It really took the whole community to get these programs here."

Hodapp echoed these sentiments, emphasizing how crucial it was to have the community at large working together.

"In order for things like this to be successful, it takes ongoing collaboration between private industries, nonprofits and the government," Hodapp said. "Just one of them alone can't do it by themselves. So it was very refreshing to be able to work across with all of these agencies to have such buy-in and cooperation. It's important that it continues."