Early in his career as an FBI agent, Don Robinson worked as a crisis/hostage team negotiator.
He spent Friday and Saturday nights talking to suicidal people on bridges, or in phone conversations with others who’d barricaded themselves in their homes. The shifts gave him an appreciation for how mental illness and substance abuse derail lives.
As the director of the new Northern Idaho Crisis Center, Robinson and his staff will provide a refuge for people who find themselves spiraling out of control.
The center opens Wednesday in Coeur d’Alene. It will give individuals 18 and older a place to get immediate help for a mental health or addiction-related crisis, plus referrals for follow-up treatment. Admittance is voluntary, and people can stay at the center for up to 24 hours.
“It takes a lot of courage to make it up to the front door,” Robinson said last month, while giving tour of the 2,200-square-foot facility on the Kootenai Health campus. When people take that step, he wants them to find “a safe, warm, welcoming place.”
Besides private counseling rooms, the center will have a waiting area with coffee, snacks and Internet access, and respite rooms for napping.
Robinson recently retired after 23 years with the FBI, including seven years as head of the Coeur d’Alene office. Mental health ranks as one of the top public health concerns for North Idaho, which has consistently high suicide rates, and addiction often accompanies mental health problems. Both law enforcement and health professionals lobbied for the crisis center.
The center will treat people who might otherwise end up in hospital emergency rooms or jail. Many of the referrals are expected to come from law enforcement agencies.
The crisis center is the second of its kind in Idaho; a similar facility opened last year in Idaho Falls.
Gov. Butch Otter will be a guest at Tuesday’s open house for the Coeur d’Alene center. He’s said he’d eventually like to see seven crisis facilities serving different regions of the state.
“He believes it’s proven to be cost-effective,” said Jon Hanian, Otter’s press secretary. “It helps first responders who are often tied up for hours with these types of calls.”
The crisis center should ease the load at local hospitals’ emergency rooms, Robinson said. Over the past 15 months, the Kootenai Health emergency department saw about 3,800 behavioral health patients. About 43 percent were admitted; the rest were stabilized and discharged.
“That’s the patient population we believe would be bettered served by coming to the crisis center,” Robinson said.
For law enforcement, the crisis center provides an option besides jail for non-violent offenders whose crime was the result of their emotional or mental state, said Barry Black, Kootenai County’s chief deputy prosecutor.
“There are many people who will benefit from this,” Black said. “They won’t be incarcerated, and they can get the help they need in the community.”
The crisis center’s services are free, but clients must be willing to accept help. They’ll go through security and medical screenings at the center. Individuals who pose a danger to themselves or others will continue to be seen at hospital emergency rooms or taken to jail, Robinson said.
Seventeen people will work at the crisis center, including nursing staff, hospital security, mental health specialists and case managers tasked with booking appointments for clients to quickly get into followup counseling or treatment.
“After-care is key,” Robinson said. “If I sent them out with an appointment that’s two weeks away, we’ve done them no good.”
The state of Idaho is providing $1.5 million for the crisis center’s first two years and $200,000 for the initial remodeling of the space. Kootenai Health has the contract to run the facility, and the Panhandle Health District and Heritage Health are partners in the project.
In the future, the crisis center will be looking for community contributions to augment state funding. Some funding might come from entities that saved money by having the crisis center operating in the community, such as jails or county indigent funds.
In Idaho Falls, the crisis center is believed to have prevented nearly $300,000 worth of jail stays and emergency room visits. However, “it’s hard to put a dollar value on something that didn’t happen,” Robinson said.
Housing an inmate in the Kootenai County jail costs about $90 daily, said Sheriff Ben Wolfinger. The crisis center could lower jail costs, and might even reduce calls to police agencies if people start using the center as a preventative measure, he said.
Robinson wants to develop a “Friends of the Crisis Center” group, which could help donate some of the supplies and snacks for the center. He also wants the center to have a washer and dryer, and spare clothes for people to change into while their clothing is being laundered.
“Let’s not underestimate the psychological value of clean clothes,” Robinson said.
Organizing transportation from rural areas is also a need. The center is expected to serve Idaho’s 10 northern counties.
Someone recently brought up a question Robinson hadn’t considered. Can the crisis center accommodate clients’ service animals?
“We’ll have to come up with a plan for that, too,” he said.
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