September 29, 2022

— A growing mental health crisis affecting more families and children in Wake County is prompting a hospital to take new action.

WakeMed said the number of patients coming into the emergency room with a behavioral health condition is up 25 percent. Doctors are seeing about 40,000 more people per year in need of that kind of care since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

WakeMed President and CEO Donald Gintzig is currently asking area city councils and commissions for pandemic rescue funds. The money would go into plans to build a new hospital specifically for patients in need of mental health care.

“Crises present opportunity for change and opportunities to grow and face head-on what we’re dealing with,” he said.

Psychologist Cheryl Stallings said she’s never been busier in her 22 years of private practice in Raleigh.

“It’s our firefighters, our veterans, our police, our first responders, our children, our educators and our health care professionals. People are just struggling,” said Stallings.

Stallings blames the pandemic for breaking an already fragile system of mental health care.

“We need to be bold, and we need to act because so many people are hurting right now,” she said.

Those struggles are straining WakeMed’s emergency rooms.

“What we found is, if you can connect a patient and family with a provider faster, they go and get the care they need,” said Gintzig.

Since the start of the pandemic, WakeMed has seen a 66 percent increase in children and adolescents showing up at the emergency room with a behavioral health condition. That’s about 155 children each month.

“Emergency departments are the first place people go. Not the best place to get care for acute mental health situations, but people just don’t know where to go,” said Gintzig.

That’s why WakeMed is developing plans for a new 50-bed behavioral health hospital to become the first stop for people in crisis.

“Just from the sheer growth in our community, the needs are going to increase,” said Gintzig.

Stallings said a behavioral health hospital is a bold step.

“As a mental health professional, I am so excited, because that need is so real and it would do a great service to the people of Wake County,” she said.

Stallings, the psychologist, said she supports using rescue plan funds for mental health programs both as a doctor and in her role as a member of the Apex town council.

“People can clearly get better with support, so I’m really hopeful that if we can get more mental health services, we can get people back on track,” she said.

WakeMed does not have an estimate on how much the new hospital would cost or when it would be built. Right now, they’re looking for a location.