UNC WakeBrook, a psychiatric facility in Raleigh operated by UNC Health Care, has added a dozen new beds to handle the area’s most serious psychiatric cases, completing an agreement with crosstown rival WakeMed Health and Hospitals to treat more of the region’s mentally ill patients, many of whom are uninsured and homeless.
The expansion gives WakeBrook, which is owned by Wake County, 28 beds for patients who pose a risk to themselves or to others. WakeBrook also has 16 beds for alcohol and substance abusers, and 16 beds for people in crisis who are experiencing mental illness but not high risk. The new beds have been added since UNC Health Care began operating the facility in 2013, and stem from its pledge to commit $40 million for mental health services to stop WakeMed’s attempted hostile takeover in 2011 of UNC Rex Health Care.
North Carolina has had a chronic shortage of psychiatric treatment facilities for years. The long wait times to get admitted into the state’s three psychiatric hospitals often forces patients to wait for days and weeks in hospital emergency rooms that are ill-equipped to handle people who can be unstable and violent. Some psychiatric patients don’t receive care at all, or become caught up in the criminal justice system.
“The largest mental health hospital in our state is called Central Prison,” William Roper, CEO of the UNC Health Care System, said in a recent interview. “We need more beds. We are dramatically under-served.”
The state’s central region, which includes the Triangle, needs at least an addtional 356 in-patient beds, according to a December 2015 study by UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University.
WakeBrook’s new beds will relieve Triangle hospital ERs of a dozen patients at any given time, said Jack Naftel, vice chairman of the UNC Department of Psychiatry. But the new beds are not enough to reduce crowding at WakeBrook, where patients typically spend one to two weeks recovering from psychotic episodes, debilitating depression and other conditions.
“It will not reduce our length of stay at all,” Naftel said. “We are almost always full.”
Ann Akland, a Wake County advocate on mental illness, said that the capacity to treat more mentally ill people will make a big difference in the lives of the people who fill the dozen new slots.
“From an overall system perspective, 12 beds may be a drop in the bucket, but from a family perspective those beds increase the chance that my loved one will get the help she needs close to home,” Akland, a board member of the Wake County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said by email. “Patients can stay near their families and friends and have that support rather than being restrained and transported to a hospital in another part of the state, sometimes hundreds of miles.”
WakeBrook employs several hundred people, recently hiring 50 to staff its expansion when it began adding its dozen new beds in August, Naftel said.
WakeBrook’s goal is not to serve as a temporary way station for patients en route to one of the state’s three psychiatric hospitals. Rather, WakeBrook staff seek to help patients return home, go to a group home or some other option where they will receive the care they need, Naftel said.
WakeBrook, which comprises two buildings, has space for additional expansion. Naftel said Wake County is developing a long-term plan that could include further additions.
“The solution is not just more hospital beds, but more housing and community services,” he said.