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Immediate help for mental health or substance abuse available in Chesapeake

Virginian-Pilot - 1/29/2018

Jan. 29--CHESAPEAKE -- For people suffering from mental health or substance abuse issues, timing can be everything when seeking help.

In Chesapeake, getting people connected to the services they need faster has become a priority.

Chesapeake Integrated Behavioral Healthcare is one of 18 community services boards -- and the only one in South Hampton Roads -- to be funded by the state to implement same-day access.

That means someone who calls or comes to a community services board will receive a clinical assessment that day instead of waiting for a mental health appointment. If more help is needed, the next visit will be scheduled within 10 days.

"We're offering an opportunity for people to come in at will, much the same as you would do for a medical appointment for urgent care," Executive Director Joe Scislowicz said.

As of Jan. 3, people can walk into the healthcare facility on Great Bridge Boulevard without an appointment. Previously, unless it was an emergency, people may have had to wait weeks for a scheduled intake appointment, which resulted in no-shows and underutilized staff time, Scislowicz said.

Courtney Boone, president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Virginia Beach, said same-day access could remove a barrier for people at a critical time when they're ready to seek treatment and get help.

"It's a huge opportunity to make this a really viable point of entry ... so they know where to go, where that first stop is," she said. What's essential to make it work, however, is that the next steps are adequately funded as well, including staffing.

"We have to address the provider piece, meaning the person who puts pen to paper."

Someone suffering from depression, acute anxiety or substance abuse problems, or who has a child with behavioral issues in school, may benefit most from the new walk-in policy because they often want to establish care promptly, Scislowicz said.

If they can't help them in Chesapeake, "we'll help them find alternative services," he said.

Same-day access is the first phase of a bigger plan to transform Virginia's public behavioral health services, according to Jack Barber, commissioner of the state's Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.

The state has 40 community services boards providing mental health, substance abuse and intellectual- disability services. Chesapeake Integrated Behavioral Healthcare is one of five in South Hampton Roads. The type and how quickly patients can access services varies by board, Barber said. One of the goals is to achieve consistency of some core services across the state.

"Having it possible for folks to just go to the CSB, or one of their locations, and be seen that day is a huge step forward," Barber said.

The 2017 General Assembly provided $4.9 million to enable 18 CSBs -- including Chesapeake -- to implement same-day access. Each CSB will receive $270,000 in state mental-health funds, according to a report from the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.

Funding for the remaining 22 boards -- which include Virginia Beach, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Western Tidewater -- is in this year's proposed state budget, Barber said. Pending legislative approval, all 40 CSBs will offer same-day access by the end of fiscal year 2019, he said.

In the meantime, Norfolk is testing a pilot program. Virginia Beach and Portsmouth also have some form of same-day access.

Chesterfield County, south of Richmond, implemented same-day access in July 2015 with the hope of eliminating wait lists. John Tyler, program manager with the county's Mental Health Support Services, said they anticipated a crush of walk-ins when they first started the program. It turned out to be more manageable than they feared, say Tyler and same-day access supervisor Sheila Brown.

The first visit can take up to two hours, Brown said, but people walk out with their next appointment scheduled or with a referral to other community organizations. No-show rates have gone down significantly, Tyler said, and the wait lists are gone.

Scislowicz said they were "busting at the seams" on the first day of same-day access in Chesapeake, but he suspects that was an anomaly. Before, they typically had about seven pre-scheduled intakes a day, he said.

From July 2016 to June 2017, Chesapeake Integrated Behavioral Healthcare, a city department, served 5,954 people, according to numbers provided by Scislowicz. Most took part in mental-health or substance abuse programs. More than 1,400 had serious mental illness.

Being more efficient during the intake and assessment process is part of the intent of same-day access, Scislowicz said, but so is catching people while they're eager for treatment.

"People get cold feet real quick," he said.


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