‘This Mental Health Access Center will be a game-changer’: After years of collaboration, Linn County’s center prepares to assist first patients

Linn County Mental Health Access Center, 501 13th St. NW in Cedar Rapids — Jessica Abdoney/Little Village

While it would have been easy to put the opening of the Linn County Mental Health Access Center on hold, director Erin Foster said the challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic only made it more critical for the center to open.

“We saw that we cannot stop this from moving forward,” Foster, who has been the center’s director since December 2019, told Little Village. “We have to keep moving forward because we’re seeing crisis calls go up, lots of people are discussing suicide more, you’re talking isolation more, you’re talking just this overall stress and event that none of us have ever dealt with before.”

“Although it would have been easy to, it was not a time to stop moving this project forward.”

Despite delays caused by the pandemic and August 2020 derecho, the $3.5 million center is preparing to open its doors and assist its first patients. A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held on Friday morning to celebrate the center’s completion and signal a soft opening. Foster told the Gazette the center should start taking patients in the next week or so, with an official opening happening later this month.

“This is the culmination of years of collaboration, cooperation, planning, overcoming challenges such as natural disasters [and] a pandemic, and creating opportunities to ensure that people with brain health and substance use challenges have a safe, inviting, accessible and high-quality alternative to the emergency room or jails for services,” Supervisor Ben Rogers said during Friday’s ceremony.

“Access centers are not a new service nationally, but they are a new service in Iowa. For years, law enforcement and emergency room doctors have wanted to divert or safely discharge people away from the jail or the hospital emergency rooms but didn’t have a place to divert them to. Officers and doctors were plagued by the question: Safely divert them to what or where? Linn County’s Mental Health Access Center answers that question with an array of services designed to meet people where they are at, help them de-escalate and create a treatment plan after they walk out these doors.”

The center is located in the former Linn County Public Health building at 501 13th St NW in Cedar Rapids. The facility is open 24/7 and will provide treatment for adults experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis.

Individuals don’t need a referral and anyone can walk into the building. Foster said the facility does not define “crisis” because “everyone’s crisis looks different, and it is not up to us to determine what someone’s crisis is.”

Services will be provided by AbbeHealth, Area Substance Abuse Council (ASAC), Foundation 2 and Penn Center, and include:

• Immediate triage and screening

• Suicide assessment and safety planning

• Crisis stabilization and observation

• Subacute services

• Crisis psychiatric evaluations

• Substance abuse assessment and counseling

• Care coordination and referrals

Foster said having all of those services and providers under one roof allows for a better chance of getting patients connected to what they need, since they can see multiple providers and get multiple referrals in one visit.

Access centers are designed to be a “quick stay,” with visits ranging from a few hours to a few days, Foster said. Individuals are welcome to come as many times as they need, Rogers said.

A living room area in the Linn County Mental Health Access Center. — photo provided and taken by Erin Foster

Getting the center open was not an easy feat, but Foster said the pandemic and the derecho made those involved think about various ways to make the center better and safer for patients and staff.

“It has stopped and made us think that we needed to have other things in place that honestly we probably never would have thought of if these two larger events didn’t happen,” Foster said, adding that there are policies, procedures and mitigation measures in place to help prevent an outbreak from happening.

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The pandemic has also shown that “there is more need than ever right now” to have an access center in the community, Foster said.

“I think before March no one would have disagreed that there’s a need for an access center,” Foster said. “… I think when the pandemic hit, there were so many people for the very first time either willing to discuss mental health or having that wave of something ‘I don’t feel well, but it’s not physical.’”

Foster mentioned Linn County and neighboring Johnson County are a “lucky part of the state” since both counties now have an access center. Johnson County’s GuideLink Center had its soft opening last month. Individuals involved with the GuideLink also expressed how important and needed an access center is right now.

Foster is excited to show individuals the benefits of having an access center in their community “because we can’t just be content with the few access centers across the state of Iowa.” She hopes Linn County’s model can be used as a “blueprint” for other communities across the state that they could then modify based on their needs.

“I have heard many people describe this access center to be a ‘new chapter’ in mental health and substance use services,” Foster said at the end of her remarks during Friday’s ceremony. “I actually don’t believe that’s true. I believe we’re literally starting an entire new book. This Mental Health Access Center will be a game-changer in the lives for many years to come, and today’s just the first page.”

A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held on Friday, March 5, to celebrate the completion of the Linn County Mental Health Access Center. — screengrab