Skagit center serves Bellingham patients who need crisis mental health care

Framed by tall trees and with deer grazing in a nearby field, the site of the North Sound Evaluation and Treatment Center does not reflect the turmoil some are battling inside its walls.

Since it opened Sept. 18, 2015, the center in northeast Sedro-Woolley has served hundreds of patients in need of crisis mental health care.

Crisis care may be needed due a severe breakdown, undiagnosed mental illness or difficult-to-manage mental illness, said Gregg von Fempe, director of the treatment center. Patients in need of that care are brought to the center after being seen in emergency rooms.

The center treated 709 patients between its opening and Sept. 30. About 25 percent of those patients came from Skagit County.

The majority of patients came from Bellingham and Everett – the largest cities in the five-county region the center serves – and a few each year came from outside areas such as King County.

Patients on average spent 13 days at the center before either being transferred to Western State Hospital for longer-term care or released into outpatient programs.

During the past year, von Fempe said the center added four staff members so it can offer additional services.

Three of those hires are part of the state’s Peer Bridger Program, which hires those who have recovered from crisis mental health situations and are now able to help others transition from recovery back into their communities.

The fourth is a discharge resource coordinator who connects patients who are waiting for a bed at Western State Hospital with local services that may help them recover without needing long-term hospitalization. The wait for a bed at Western State is six to eight weeks, von Fempe said.

The center has been able to remove about 75 percent of its patients from the waiting list for Western State as a result of that coordinator’s work, von Fempe said.

The center will see additional changes in the future, as plans are being made to relocate the facility.

The center opened in a renovated building at the site of the former Northern State Hospital – a campus now known as the Sedro-Woolley Innovation for Tomorrow (SWIFT) Center – under the agreement that its operations there would be temporary.

The Port of Skagit, Skagit County and Sedro-Woolley are working together, with support from the state Department of Enterprise Services that owns the campus, to bring the property under local ownership and redevelop it.

Their redevelopment vision does not include keeping the mental health treatment facility.

That means the center will assume a month-to-month lease after its existing lease expires July 30, 2018, von Fempe said. The center will not immediately shut down or relocate.

It is waiting on plans the North Sound Behavioral Health Organization and Skagit County Public Health are working on together to rebuild area behavioral health care services.

Behavioral health includes mental illness and substance use issues. The North Sound Behavioral Health Organization oversees behavioral health services in Skagit, Whatcom, Snohomish, Island and San Juan counties.

The North Sound Behavioral Health Organization contracts with the 16-bed North Sound Evaluation and Treatment Center to provide crisis mental health care to the region.

The relocation of the center will mean giving up the scenery that helps evoke a sense of calm at the historic campus.

“It’s tranquil here. There’s not many places you can look out your window and see 20 elk,” von Fempe said. “It’s a beautiful setting.”

But the move will also mean more space for staff and visitors.

“We’re very thankful for this space, but we don’t have much room,” von Fempe said.

The future center will remain a 16-bed facility, but will have more office space for the 52-member staff.