A homeless woman arrived at the Northern Idaho Crisis Center in the midst of a mental health breakdown.
She had a 14-pound, incontinent tomcat with her, which also was agitated.
While the center’s staff helped stabilize the woman, they were able to assure her that her cat would be cared for through a temporary boarding arrangement at the Kootenai County Humane Society’s shelter.
It’s been a busy first year at the crisis center, which has had more than 1,000 client visits since the doors opened last December. The center provides help for people who are experiencing crises related to mental health issues and substance abuse.
In some instances, that means making arrangements for the client’s pet or service animal, too.
Animals weren’t something Don Robinson, the executive director, considered in the initial planning for the center. Neither was the need for snacks appropriate for diabetics, or serving only decaf coffee to clients because caffeine might increase their anxiety.
“We’re building the plane while we’re flying it,” said Robinson, a retired FBI agent.
The state-funded crisis center is Idaho’s second. It opened in Coeur d’Alene to serve Idaho’s 10 northern counties after local law enforcement, health officials and community leaders lobbied for it. A similar center opened in Idaho Falls in 2014.
“It’s a tool that fills the gap for us on people who don’t require a protective custody hold, or that we don’t need to take to the emergency department, but who really shouldn’t be left alone,” said Kootenai County Sheriff Ben Wolfinger.
The center is projected to save the community about $2 million in emergency room costs and jail stays in its first year of operation.
However, “that’s a strange kind of math, because I’m assigning a dollar value to something that didn’t happen,” Robinson said.
The center serves people 18 and older. Services are free, but clients must be willing to accept help. They go through security and medical screenings when they enter the center. Individuals who pose a danger to themselves or others continue to be seen at hospital emergency rooms or taken to jail, Robinson said.
There’s an “amnesty box” just inside the center’s entrance. People who have drugs or other contraband items can put them in the box – no questions asked – and police officers will pick them up and dispose of them.
“We didn’t want anything to be a barrier to people getting help,” Robinson said.
People can stay at the center for up to 24 hours, though the average length of stay is seven hours. In most cases, clients are able to return home with a safety plan and a referral to a therapist, Robinson said. When a suicidal patient needs to be admitted to the hospital, Kootenai Health’s emergency room is just across the parking lot.
Kootenai Health contracts to run the facility, and the Panhandle Health District and Heritage Health are partners in the project.
Over time, local officials hope the crisis center will help reduce suicide rates in North Idaho, which rank among the highest in the nation.
“We have known that we needed this resource in the community, and it is making a difference,” said Lora Whalen, director of the Panhandle Health District.
Most people who are considering suicide are struggling with mental health issues or addiction, Whalen said. “That’s the thing, when people are suffering, to recognize it and know where to go for help,” she said.
During the center’s first year, the staff has seen a wide range of clients. One woman with an anxiety disorder spent 90 minutes at the center, putting together a puzzle with one of the center’s staff members until she felt calmer.
She had a houseful of guests for the holidays, including her in-laws.
“She said she normally gets in the car and drives when she’s experiencing anxiety. But she didn’t think that would be a good idea in the snow,” Robinson said.
Another client was in the throes of a mental health episode and hadn’t slept for three days. After arriving at the center, he slept for 18 hours.
“Then he was ready to talk,” Robinson said.
Besides people who might otherwise have had contact with law enforcement or an emergency room doctor, the center is seeing a population that Robinson calls the “silent sufferers.” Before the center opened, they would have suffered alone, he said.
The center’s first two years of operation are being funded with $1.52 million in annual grants through the Legislature. After two years, the crisis center will be looking for community funding to help cover some of the operating costs.
Some of those donations are already occurring, Robinson said. Kootenai Health is providing a building free of charge; bed linens in the respite rooms get washed for free by inmates at the Kootenai County Jail; and about $15,000 has been donated by community groups.
“It’s such a great concept,” said Wolfinger, the sheriff. “We hope we can figure out a sustainable model for the future.”
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