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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Asheville getting new behavioral health hospital

ASHEVILLE – The 120-bed Sweeten Creek Mental Health and Wellness Center will soon start receiving patients of all ages, but on a tour last week its medical director pointed out the grassy areas, the sunshine, mountain air and places for young people being treated to get outside.

“Kids need to run for their own health, that’s part of being a kid, and a healthy kid,” Dr. Michael Ed Kelley says of the two separate outside areas for children and adolescents. 

“This is just such a quantum leap in the treatment of our patients,” he adds.

HCA Healthcare, which owns Mission Health in Asheville, will open a 120-bed hospital in August for patients with mental health problems.

Nashville, Tenn.-based HCA Healthcare agreed in 2019 to build an inpatient behavioral health hospital in Asheville as part of its $1.5 billion purchase of Mission Health, a six-hospital system in western North Carolina.

The 82,000-square-foot facility cost $65 million and took almost two years to build. The hospital will open sometime in August, although an exact date remains uncertain as the final construction punch list of items are completed.

The new facility will treat patients from age 4 to seniors, with separate units for different age groups. The average stay for patients will be a week, Kelley says. Medical staff expects most of those who come for treatment in the thick of a mental health crisis to arrive via the emergency room of Mission Health. The facility can see patients from across the state, and even outside North Carolina. It will not have an emergency department, but will offer outpatient treatments.

The medical staff prefers the term “health and wellness center” over hospital “because we are actually going to look at people and teach them how to be well, how to heal, how to take care of themselves,” says Kelley.

When staff determines a patient’s mental health crisis is over, they’ll release them with a plan for outpatient treatment, Kelley says.

Mission Health patients hospitalized for mental health now stay at its 82-bed St. Joseph’s campus near downtown Asheville and the main hospital. HCA Healthcare has not decided how it will utilize the former St. Joseph’s hospital, a spokesperson said. The Sweeten Creek facility is located less than 3 miles away, close to Interstate 40.

The St. Joseph’s facility treats people in a hospital setting, which Kelley describes as an older style of treatment. Patients at Sweeten Creek will not only be able to get outside, they’ll be able to plant flowers and vegetables in an open-air horticultural area. The center has an indoor basketball court, places for art and music therapies. A 2-year-old mini Goldendoodle named Jasper will be part of pet therapy. Kelley says combined it will help patients heal faster. 

Jasper, a 2-year-old mini Goldendoodle, will be part of the pet therapy program at Sweeten Creek Mental Health & Wellness Center that Mission Health in Asheville will open in August.

“When a person in the community asks, ‘How do I fight depression without medicines’ what do I tell them,” says Kelley. “I tell them, ‘Go for a walk, get outside, breathe the fresh air, run around, exercise.’ Those are hard to teach somebody when they are in a medical unit. This allows us to do all that.’

Care for those in mental health crisis has been a hot topic not only across North Carolina, but the nation. Kody Kinsley, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, spoke before the tour and said on average 325 people go to hospital emergency rooms in North Carolina each day and are diagnosed with mental health issues, but either have no place to go for treatment or cannot afford it.

He says he sees the opening of the Sweeten Creek facility as a turning point for western North Carolina and the state. “People are talking about mental health in a way we have not talked about it before,” Kinsley says.

Michael Downie, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and Johnson and Wales University, will be the division chef at Sweeten Creek Mental Health & Wellness Center.

“Nationwide, the need for mental health services has just grown and grown and was amplified when the pandemic happened,” Kelley says. “Emergency rooms are bursting.”

Another person on the tour was Buncombe County Sheriff Quentin Miller, who was elected to his second, four-year term in 2022.

Miller’s office oversees the Buncombe County Jail, which averages between 400 and 500 inmates each day, he says. A good number of those individuals suffer from mental health, something he admits his officers do not have the necessary skills to properly treat. “A lot of the people who end up in our detention center need to be here,” Miller says.

“We’re going in the right direction,” he says in reference to the new inpatient center.

The for-profit HCA Healthcare has not been without its critics in the four years since purchasing the Asheville-based hospital system. It has faced criticism from doctors, patients and state officials. North Carolina initially granted Florida-based Advent Health a certificate of need to build a 67-bed hospital in Buncombe County over Mission, which has appealed the decision. Mission nurses voted to join a union in 2020, resulting in a three-year contract through 2024.

Mission Health President Greg Lowe has responded to some of the criticism by pointing out that HCA Healthcare has approved more than $660 million in projects since its purchase.

Kelley worked 25 years in Maine before coming to Asheville last December to lead the Sweeten Creek facility. He says HCA Healthcare’s commitment to treating people with mental health issues attracted him to the job.

“People don’t treat people with mental health issues to make money, they treat them because this is the biggest need in all of medicine right now.”

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