January 11, 2017

Groundbreaking marks start for Peace River Center mental health project

By Marilyn Meyer The Ledger LAKELAND – A groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday for Peace River Center’s 20-bed crisis stabilization unit in Lakeland was an opportunity for local dignitaries to speak about the overwhelming need to provide assistance to people under duress who may harm themselves or others.

Bill Gardham, chief executive officer of Peace River Center, said the $5 million facility “will allow us to serve 2,000 to 3,000 more people a year.”

The project by the nonprofit organization that provides a web of mental health services combines new construction and renovations to an existing building at 715 N. Lake Ave.

When the crisis stabilization unit is completed next winter, there will be a 10-bed secured wing for adults; a 10-bed secured wing for children and teens; separate entrances for patients who voluntarily come to the crisis unit and for those who are brought by law enforcement; and an area where staff can observe patients and determine whether they can be stabilized without being admitted to one of the secured wings.

State Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, said, “As a state we need to get serious about mental illness and substance abuse.” She said that for too long Florida has relied on law enforcement and jail beds to help people in crisis and that hospitals are not a good fit for people with no evident physical illness.

Under Florida’s 45-year-old law known as the Baker Act, a person in a mental health crisis – who may be a danger to self or others – can be taken into custody involuntarily for up to 72 hours for a mental assessment at the nearest receiving facility.

Polk County has three such facilities: the Peace River Center Crisis Stabilization Unit in Bartow, which has 30 beds to serve residents of Polk, Hardee and Highlands counties; Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center, which has up to 68 beds; and Winter Haven Hospital, which has 28 beds for adults.

Peace River Center’s Bartow facility is often at or above capacity.

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd said, “In 2015 alone, the Sheriff’s Office responded to 2,922 Baker Act calls. That’s nine a day. And that is excluding all the police department calls. Right now, police and law enforcement are the emergency responders for the mentally ill and that’s insufficient.”

Lakeland Mayor Howard Wiggs said, “I am here today to acknowledge the value of this organization in doing a tough job.”

He said that as a child growing up in Mulberry, his mother was “a barely functioning alcoholic” who tried to kill herself six times, so he knows the impact mental illness has on families.

Peace River Center, he said, “sometimes has more losses than victories. But they keep trying.”

Denise Crenshaw, steering committee chair, said funding for the project “allows us to give people in Lakeland services that are needed at a very convenient location.”

Lakeland Police Chief Larry Giddens said, “Peace River Center protects law enforcement” by providing services to those with mental illnesses and substance abuse problems.

“Remember when you give to these people you are protecting our officers,” he said.

Following the ceremony, Margaret Parry, chief development officer for Peace River Center, said that in addition to $2 million in state funds for the project, a capital campaign steering committee is close to its goal of raising $3 million for this part of a larger project.

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