By Ben McNeely

The gift of a suncatcher became a symbol of hope as local and federal officials gathered with hospital executives at Garner Town Hall in southern Wake County to announce the awarding of $12 million in funding to help build a new mental health facility..

Rachel Moorefield was in the audience. In 2018, her son Isaiah died by suicide at the age of 19. Her family, through their grief, made suncatchers as a way to remember Isaiah and his sunny personality. She brought one to the announcement ceremony to symbolize and celebrate support for the cause of mental health care.

Moorefield, who recently moved to North Carolina from Minnesota, said having access to compassionate care is essential for people dealing with mental health issues. Compassion, she said, is something that Isaiah didn’t receive as she and her family looked for the help he needed to treat his depression.

“The problems that we ran into was, one, getting him admitted and feeling like he was in a prison, feeling like it was in the basement,” Moorefield said. “[The psychiatric unit] was tucked in a corner, they were wearing brown garb, there were locks on the doors and there wasn’t any feeling of hope for him.

“It just felt like here you are, and here, we’re going to keep you and then send you on your way,” Moorefield said.

Now, WakeMed is aiming to change the way mental health care is delivered, with a new campus in the state’s largest county. 

The Raleigh-based system’s plan is to build two facilities in Garner — a 45-bed acute care hospital and a 150-bed mental health and wellness hospital — at a campus near White Oak Road and Timber Drive East, an area that has seen explosive growth in the past few years. 

On Friday, the health system announced $12 million in government funding toward the new mental health hospital — with Wake County chipping $6 million and the federal government giving the other $6 million. U.S. Rep. Deborah Ross (D-NC 02) and recently retired U.S. Rep. David Price (D-NC 04) attended the announcement; they had championed the money through the appropriations process in Congress.

Whole-person approach

The goal of the new hospital is to integrate mental and physical health services into “whole person” treatment, said Donald Gintzig, WakeMed president and CEO.

“We wanted it in the county, we didn’t want it isolated somewhere. We already planned to put an acute-care hospital here. And so why not be bold and innovative around that whole-person concept?” he said.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health says that “whole person health focuses on restoring health, promoting resilience, and preventing diseases across a lifespan” instead of treating one specific disease at a time.

Gintzig said that in the past, health systems treated mental health differently and, in some cases, didn’t address it at all. But the pandemic exacerbated existing problems, he said, resulting in a rise in drug overdoses, depression and anxiety. People went to emergency rooms for help, creating a problem that health systems have struggled to address. 

“I think for years, it was like, ‘Well, if we just don’t look, it’ll go away,’” Gintzig said. “‘We don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist. Let’s focus on heart disease and all the other things that are important.’ But we also know that it didn’t go away, and it’s not going to go away.”

The health campus is part of a larger mixed-use development being planned by the Town of Garner focused on wellness and innovation. 

“This mental health and well-being hospital, along with an acute-care hospital, to be located on the same site, will provide Garner, our town and surrounding counties with easier access and enhanced … care. That will be a huge benefit for our growing area,” said Garner Mayor Ken Marshburn.

Construction on WakeMed’s $137 million-dollar mental health hospital is expected to begin next year, with a potential opening in fall 2026. WakeMed also received the go-ahead from the state for the acute-care hospital, but Duke Health, UNC Health and Oakview ASC, a limited liability corporation based out of Elizabeth City, are appealing the decision. WakeMed said they are confident the decision will be upheld.

This facility in Garner is just the latest in a trend of health care systems establishing freestanding mental health facilities across the state. From April 2022 to April 2023, the NC Department of Health and Human Services issued certificates of need for five mental health facilities in Brunswick, Pitt, Richmond, Wake and Sampson counties. 

Change coming for mental health services in Wake County

The planned campus comes as Wake County’s partnership with UNC Health to run the mental health facility at WakeBrook is under a cloud of uncertainty. UNC Health has been running the facility since a 2012 agreement. 

The facility, which has been open since 2010, has garnered national attention for its innovative programs that provide comprehensive care for patients, including outpatient, inpatient and substance-use care. 

The county’s current contract for inpatient and crisis care with UNC Health ends in November 2024, while UNC Health said it will end other services near the end of this year. 

Shinica Thomas, chairwoman of the Wake County Board of Commissioners, said the county is still negotiating with UNC Health to provide services at WakeBrook, after UNC Health said they were leaving.

shows an artists rendering of a new mental health facility that's being planned. The rendering shows a building with many windows and trees around it.
Rendering of WakeMed’s new 150-bed mental health and well-being hospital to be built in Garner. It will be part of a larger health campus that will also include an acute 45-bed hospital, and work on an integrated “whole person” concept. Credit: Ben McNeely/ NCHN

“If not, then we will be searching for another provider to provide services, so we don’t anticipate that there will be a gap,” Thomas said.

The grant announcement also comes as Wake County has seen a jump in the number of emergency room visits for mental health concerns. 

Thomas said a recent study commissioned by Wake County reported that the three hospital systems in the county saw a 40 percent bump in the number of encounters with primarily a mental health diagnosis from 2018 to 2022.

That same study also recommended keeping WakeBrook as a hub for mental health crisis assessments. 

“The critical need for a campus like this is clearer now than ever,” she said. “That’s thousands more people who desperately need the right mental health care.”

A new model for Wake County

In Garner, WakeMed plans a different kind of mental health hospital — one that is built around the whole-person model of treatment. 

“Our mental health hospital is going to be the crowning jewel of this campus,” said Dr. Micah Krempasky, WakeMed’s chief medical officer of health and well-being. “Not the mental health hospital in the past, not like the traditional psychiatric units in America that are hidden in the corner, with poor visibility and poor accessibility.”

Krempasky said at the grant announcement ceremony that the plans for the new mental health hospital include a gym to promote exercise, a dining area to promote healthy eating and outdoor space to promote the healing effects of nature.

“It’s going to proudly sit next to a big acute-care hospital. And it’s going to unabashedly welcome people into its doors, and celebrate the beauty of helping and supporting mental health,” she said.

Krempasky held up a suncatcher that Moorefield had made, as that symbol of hope, and as a gift to the officials who helped secure the grants. 

“It’s so wonderful to hear what WakeMed is doing because we’re letting people know that they’re not a burden, that they’re not a burden to the health care system,” Moorefield said. “They’re not a burden to the community and that we’re here to help them and get them the help that they deserve. And that’s huge. It’s huge.”

Correction: Rachel Moorefield’s late son was named Isaiah, not Isaac as originally appeared in the story. NC Health News regrets the error.

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  1. I am responding to an article you recently published in the NC Health News, “Proposed Wake County mental health hospital aims to treat whole person.” While it is always good to hear about efforts to improve the mental health system, I feel that this article fails to lay out some of the facts that may temper the “symbol of hope” as described in the article, as well as false impressions. Let me provide examples from your article.

    The article begins with reference to a lady whose son died by suicide in Minnesota in 2018. She has since moved here and is hoping for a place with access to compassionate care for people with mental health issues. She goes on to add that in Minnesota her son felt as if he were in a prison, with locks on the doors. You added, “Now, WakeMed is aiming to change the way mental health care is delivered, with a new campus in the state’s largest county.” Do you have any evidence that the patients who will one day have access to this new inpatient mental hospital will feel any differently? I am sure it will have to be a locked facility. Or, are you implying that the current inpatient mental health hospitals do not provide compassionate care? Adding more inpatient hospital beds should improve access to inpatient care, but WakeMed has never operated a mental health inpatient hospital. There are many risks associated with health care based on lack of management experience, professional staff and a proven record of safely providing adequate care. Case in point, reference the closing of Strategic Behavioral Health Care, Garner, NC last year.

    Your article concludes with a section “A new model for Wake County.” Since you previously referenced UNC WakeBrook, you probably know that UNC WakeBrook actually started and continues to operate an integrated primary care clinic in conjunction with their behavioral crisis and inpatient hospital system. If the WakeMed model is any different from what is already in practice at UNC WakeBrook, differences should be noted in your article. Otherwise, you are discrediting the many UNC healthcare professionals who work to ensure that the whole-person is being treated at WakeBrook.

    Finally let me suggest that the section, “Change coming for mental health services in Wake County” paints a fatalistic picture of certain termination of UNC Health as the service provider at WakeBrook. UNC Health and the Wake County Manager are continuing to negotiate a future contract. This section should not have been included in your article for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the harm it can do to the UNC professionals who work at WakeBrook and who still have hope that their compassionate care and love for those who they serve may continue for years to come.

  2. I have to take issue with some of the comments in this article.

    I am pleased that a new mental health hospital is in the works but touting it as something new in psychiatric treatment is not accurate. Rather, this new hospital plan should be viewed as an attempt to move back to the “whole person care” that existed in mental health inpatient units in the not so distant past. 15 years of my 40 year career as a psychiatrist included work on psychiatric units in general hospitals and in a free standing psychiatric hospital. In the 1980s these programs had the elements of whole person care mentioned in the article and then some–individual therapy, group therapy, pleasant surroundings, recreation, teaching on nutrition, art therapy, music therapy, and even horticulture therapy. I blame public and private payers for the demise of these elements of care. These payers aggressively sought decreased lengths of stay that put inpatient care in financial straits, leading to the discontinuation of most elements of whole person care. The payers promised that the saved money would enable them to support more and better community-based behavioral health services. And yet, here we are, still talking about the lack of community behavioral health services AND inpatients stays are so short that only band aids can be applied to mental health wounds.

    Finally, the article’s implication that current psychiatric units are prisons tucked in dark corners of hospitals is simply not true and does a real disservice to those who are committed to inpatient behavioral health care of seriously ill patients.

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