Julie Whitehead poses for a portrait inside of her home in Brandon, Miss., Thursday, June 8, 2023. Julie was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2006. She received her care at St. Dominic Hospital Behavioral Health Services. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Julie Whitehead of Brandon is a longtime patient of St. Dominic’s behavioral health services. After being admitted to the hospital following a suicide attempt in 2006, Whitehead was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

She was admitted again six times over the next 15 years.

“Each one of those times, if I had not been admitted to St. D, I would be dead,” Whitehead said. 

So when she heard the news the 83-bed unit was closing last week, she took it hard.

She has always considered herself lucky – she works part time and has Medicare and private insurance through her husband. 

“I have resources. I’m not in the fix that a lot of people are in who suffer from mental illness. I’m not dependent on Medicaid and trying to find doctors who will take Medicaid, so I’m never worried about getting care,” she said. 

But when St. Dominic’s announced the closure, her perspective changed.

“I’ve just kind of been in shock because if the beds aren’t there, it doesn’t matter whether I can pay for it or not …” she said.

The unit had been providing inpatient mental health and geriatric psychiatric treatment. But the nonprofit hospital, citing “significant financial challenges” and losses of several million dollars, announced it was discontinuing the services and laying off 5.5% of its total workforce earlier this month.

The hospital’s most recent available tax filing for the fiscal year ending June 2021 showed a loss of $21.7 million for the prior year. That year’s tax filing showed a gain but coincided with hospitals receiving an influx of federal COVID-19 aid. 

Hinds County Sheriff Tyree Jones listens to opinions on possible crime deterrents during a Violent Crime Prevention Summit held at the Two Mississippi Museums, Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023 in Jackson. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Advocates and law enforcement worry that as a result of the closure, more people in the Jackson area who need treatment will end up in jails or without the help they need.

Hinds County Sheriff Tyree Jones called the move “disappointing” in a tweet.

“Jails across our state and America are populated with ‘patients’ suffering from mental illnesses. Sheriffs and wardens assume the responsibility of these individuals when in reality, SOME of them should not be in jail but rather a treatment institution,” he wrote. “The risks will increase.”

A spokesperson for St. Dominic said the hospital recognizes mental health is “a significant need.”

“While continuing to meet these needs directly is no longer viable for St. Dominic’s, we are working with partners to help patients access the care they need,” Meredith Bailess said in an emailed statement. “Our health system will continue to advocate for additional state and federal resources to stabilize healthcare providers in Mississippi.”

Although the Mississippi State Hospital opened 20 adult psychiatric beds earlier this year that had been closed due to staffing issues, the average wait time for a bed there is around two days. Bed availability at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson is limited, with only 21 adult beds and 12 beds for children. 

Hinds Behavioral Health Services is one of 14 regional community mental health centers in Mississippi. The goal of the centers is to provide services to citizens with mental health issues and, when possible, keep people out of institutions. 

The center runs a 24/7 mobile crisis unit that responds to people in crisis and attempts to stabilize them. 

However, of the 1,196 people the unit came in contact with over the last year, 643 of those required a higher level of care, or admission to an inpatient facility, according to Jamie Evans, the supervisor for the mobile crisis unit at Hinds Behavioral Health Services.

When that happens, there are two options in the metro area for those people to go and immediately receive care: St. Dominic and Merit Health Central. The other options, which are referred to as a “single point-of-entry,” is the 16-bed crisis stabilization unit in Jackson. Another is the unit in Brookhaven, about an hour drive from Jackson. 

Crisis stabilization units are short-term residential treatment facilities run by community health centers where people having a mental health crisis can be stabilized. 

Single point-of-entry locations have memorandums of understanding with the community health center, and patients are able to bypass emergency rooms and be immediately admitted for care. 

“It’s almost as if even if they are full, they secure beds on the side for us, because we’re meeting an individual in crisis, in one of the most vulnerable points in their mental health,” said Evans, explaining the relationship between Hinds Behavioral Health Services and single points of entry. “It’s very fast paced, and we really don’t have time to sit in the ER and wait for a doctor to see them.”

Now, however, the only single point-of-entry option besides the crisis stabilization unit in Jackson is Merit Health Central, which houses around 70 psychiatric beds, according to Evans. 

St. Dominic Hospital Behavioral Health Services in Jackson, Miss., Friday, June 9, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

The services’ closure, which Hinds Behavioral Health Services learned about at the same time the hospital made its public announcement, will leave a substantial gap, Evans and other mental health advocates agreed.

“There will be a huge impact to the systems, especially the elderly and those that find themselves in a crisis situation,” said Angela Ladner, executive director of the Mississippi Psychiatric Association.

She also said the speed at which the closure is happening is “disconcerting.” 

In worse-case scenarios, mentally ill people with nowhere to go can end up in jail – unregulated facilities that are detrimental to people going through a mental health crisis. 

In an attempt to minimize that practice, the Legislature this year passed House Bill 1222, which required mental health training for law enforcement agencies.  

The hospital, which was purchased by the Baton Rouge-based Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System in 2019, announced the unit was closing on June 5 and would stop accepting patients at 7 a.m. the next day.

In the meantime, Evans and other advocates say they will work together to find a way to bridge the gap. Hinds Behavioral Health Services received funding to open a second, 16-bed crisis stabilization unit in Hinds County, but that won’t happen immediately.

Whitehead says her next steps are to collect a “portable” version of her more-than-a-decade worth of medical records to take with her wherever she lands next. 

She guesses the only other thing she can do is “do my best to stay stable.” 

Correction 6/14/23: This story has been updated to reflect that there is also a crisis stabilization unit in Jackson.

Correction 6/14/23: This story has been updated to make clear the difference in wait times for Forensic Services beds at Mississippi State Hospital compared to wait times for acute psychiatric care beds there.

Editor’s note: Julie Whitehead freelanced for the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, which is now part of Mississippi Today.

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Kate Royals is a Jackson native and returned to Mississippi Today as the lead education reporter after serving in the same capacity from 2016 to 2018. Prior to that, she was a reporter for the Clarion-Ledger covering education and state government. She won awards for her investigative work, including stories about the state’s campaign finance laws and prison system. She was a news producer at MassLive in Springfield, Mass., after graduating from Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communications with a master’s degree in communications.