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At long last South Bend officials celebrate upcoming opening of Oaklawn's behavioral crisis center

White walls blanket the space in the new behavioral crisis center on North Niles Avenue. A series of a dozen or so white tables and chairs are set up throughout the room, with a receptionist console in the middle of the room. Connected to the main room is a back hallway with office space and a shower.

The building’s clean appearance stands in stark contrast to the county jail or an emergency room and that’s the most important thing to community leaders who have pushed for the crisis center over the past few years.

Because before now, people in St. Joseph County going through mental health crises and acting erratically predominantly ended up in the emergency room or jail. Now, there’s a place that provides care for people whose mental health needs are urgent, but who don’t meet the high standard for hospitalization.

“That’s the thing about mental health, it doesn't discriminate. It’s touched all of our lives, either us or someone that we love,” said Oaklawn CEO Laurie Nafziger. “Everyone knows someone. So when people in our community are in crisis. When they are in their most desperate moments and need help, we will be here.”

Nafziger explained that the center will have a team of social workers, peer counselors and psychiatrists on staff to treat people who come to the center. Some people may walk in on their own or be dropped off by a family member. Police officers responding to calls will also be able to take people to the center instead of to jail.

Once at the center, Oaklawn staff will talk with the patients to do risk assessment. From there, patients will get connected with help that can include signing up for counseling or getting prescriptions. Based on what other crisis centers around the country have experienced, Oaklawn estimates the vast majority would be sent on their way in hours with plans for on-going care. For those requiring more serious, long-term help, staff at Oaklawn are easily able to transition patients into Memorial Hospital’s Epworth Center which is in the same building.

The center will open to the public on March 4 and operate from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Ricky Mountsier, Oaklawn’s director of crisis services, said the center will hopefully expand to 24/7 care, but the key issue for the nonprofit right now is staffing.

“I’m aware we’re probably going to be doing a lot of constant hiring and people are going to come and go. That’s the nature of this work. We do get a fair amount of applications,” Mountsier said.

Mobile crisis teams

Intertwined with the physical space of the crisis center is Oaklawn’s continuing initiative to staff mobile crisis teams that can respond to calls involving mental health crises. Oaklawn’s teams have been working with police and 911 dispatchers over the past year to identify which calls should be handled by social workers and to hash out protocols for situations where both agencies respond.

The St. Joseph County team will operate from the crisis center. As of this week, both Oaklawn’s St. Joseph and Elkhart County teams operate from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The majority of calls the team gets can be deescalated over the phone, but Mountsier said instances where the mobile teams have responded to calls in person more than doubled from 2022 to 2023.

'Coming together to solve problems'

While local officials touted the need for more mental health resources, the process of bringing the behavioral crisis center online was at times a rocky one.

Oaklawn has been in talks with South Bend and St. Joseph County officials about the possibility of a crisis center for four years. In December of 2021, the St. Joe County Council appeared to be the first body to get on board by pledging $2.7 million in federal Covid funding.

The topic sat on the back burner for a while but was thrust to the forefront in July 2022 when Dante Kittrell was killed by South Bend police officers following a lengthy standoff. Kitrell had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was brandishing what looked to police at the time like a gun, when it later turned out to be a replica.

Kittrell’s death was ruled justified by St. Joseph County Prosecutor Ken Cotter and city officials hold the officers that day were put in an impossible position. Still, Kittrel’s death sparked cries from many in the community about finding a better way to deal with those going through a mental health crisis.

In late 2022, the all-Republican County Commissioners pulled the previously earmarked funding for the center, leading to a series of impassioned public comments. South Bend Mayor James Mueller’s administration then stepped in to provide around $2.7 million to help build the center and fund it for its first year.

“At the heart of this progress is that this is a community that’s coming together to solve problems. To have better solutions to issues in our community,” said Mueller.

The county council eventually gave Oaklawn $600,000 as well in early 2023.

Funds and grants approved in the 2022 state legislature session will provide short term funding after this year, but Nafziger said she’s eyeing a series of larger federal grants as a long term solution. Oaklawn is technically leasing the space for the crisis center from Memorial Hospital for $1 a year.

Oaklawn has also secured funding for a similar crisis center in Goshen, which is slated to open later this year.

Marek Mazurek has been with WVPE since April 2023, though he's been in Michiana for most of his life. He has a particular interest in public safety reporting. When he's not on the radio, Marek enjoys getting way too into Notre Dame football and reading about medieval English history.