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Bigger, better mental health crisis center opening in Gainesville
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Avita Chief Financial Officer Greg Ball, left, gives a tour Tuesday, June 22, 2021, of the new mental health crisis center on Old Cornelia Highway. The center will include a 24-hour walk-in crisis center, a 23-hour temporary observation unit with 15 beds and a crisis stabilization unit with 30 beds. - photo by Scott Rogers

At the Avita Behavioral Health Crisis Center, patients can be counseled by their peers, something a state official said made Gainesville’s new facility unique. 

The center opens June 28, providing crisis care for people suffering from issues with mental health or substance use or behavioral disorders.

Avita officials held a ribbon-cutting ceremony Tuesday morning and allowed people to tour the $11.8 million, 28,000-square-foot center at 2467 Old Cornelia Highway. It will have four main components: a 24-hour walk-in center, the peer-led living room support area, a 23-hour observation room and a crisis stabilization unit with 30 beds. The Avita center in Flowery Branch, which is now set to close, only has 16 beds in its crisis unit.

The unit’s observation room and living room still need additional staff, CEO Cindy Levi said, and they plan to open those areas in phases over the next couple of months. 

In this building, “we can see what hope looks like and see what recovery looks like,” said Judy Fitzgerald, the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, at the ceremony. 

A majority of the funding for the center came from a $9.8 million grant from that state department. 

“You are doing things here that are not being done anywhere else in the state,” Fitzgerald said, addressing Avita and local officials. “You were progressive in the planning and thinking about how to serve in the future in Georgia. There are crisis units all around the state. 

“None of them are exactly like this, but what you should know is they all stay full. There are many needs for people with mental illness, substance use disorders and intellectual developmental disabilities all around our state.”

What sets the center apart from many other crisis centers is the living room model, Fitzgerald said. The center will feature a living room area where peers with lived experience with mental health or substance use or behavioral disorders can talk with patients to help supplement any medical care received.

Up to 15 people can be served in the observation room, which has seating, tables, a television and a desk where staff can monitor patients. Staff can also prescribe and administer prescriptions to people in a room adjacent to the observation room. The observation room accepts voluntary or involuntary patients, and if additional care is needed, patients will be sent to the crisis unit. 

The crisis unit also has a communal area with chairs, tables, board games and a television. And along hallways, the center has group session rooms with comfortable chairs and sensory rooms for patients to relax in with dimmable lights and walls painted to look like a river or a beach.

The unit is staffed with a psychiatrist, nurse practitioners, registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, counselors, health service technicians and certified care specialists, Levi said, and there is a specialty area for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities. The average time spent in the crisis unit is five to seven days, she said. 

The center includes a sally port where law enforcement or EMS can drop off patients. The center will allow more people to avoid jail or going to a hospital emergency room, Levi said.

“Anyone they (law enforcement officers) feel needs to have an assessment, we would prefer there be a diversion from jail or prison if there is an individual that is experiencing a mental health emergency,” Levi said. “Fortunately, in our area, departments are trained in crisis intervention.”

The center serves 13 counties in northeast Georgia, but if counties not typically in their service area have patients in need, they do not limit the area they will serve.

“It’s a challenge everywhere,” Levi said of recent national nursing shortages. “It takes a special kind of person to work in a facility like this and we’ve been very fortunate that we haven’t needed to hire nurses.” Staff from Flowery Branch will transition to the new center as it opens.  

The Flowery Branch crisis center will wind down operations as the new center opens in Gainesville, said Human Resources Director Allan Harden. The plan is to transition in a way where they do not have to transport many patients from Flower Branch to the new center, Harden said, and they may keep minimal staff there after the new center opens in case they still have some patients to monitor.

The Gainesville center also has a section dedicated to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said Hannah Quinn, the director of developmental disability services.

“For those who have co-occurring diagnosis, there has really never been a space for them where they are able to be cared for for both mental health and IDD (intellectual and developmental disabilities),” Quinn said. 

Tammy Berry, who has been a program associate for Avita for 20 years, said she personally washed all the sheets for each bedroom in the center before Tuesday’s ceremony. Working at the center helps give her perspective on her own situation, Berry said. 

“It gives you more of an appreciation of life,” Berry said. “A lot of people don’t see this … and they don’t get to see the changes you can make because of it.”

She can see the difference crisis centers like these make in people’s lives when they call back after getting care to tell them how well they’re doing now, she said. 

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A group prepares to tour the new Avita mental health crisis center Tuesday, June 22, 2021, on Old Cornelia Highway. The center will include a 24-hour walk-in crisis center, a 23-hour temporary observation unit with 15 beds and a crisis stabilization unit with 30 beds. - photo by Scott Rogers
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