Mississippi Highway Patrol Trooper Sy Holley, center, and Latesha Wells, case manager with Hinds Behavioral's Mobile Crisis Response Team, right, participate in a psychiatric call simulation during a training session at the Mississippi Law Enforcement Officers Training Academy in Pearl, Miss., Friday, June 30, 2023. Credit: Eric Shelton/Mississippi Today

Weeks after a Jackson-based hospital announced the closure of its behavioral services unit, two metro-area hospitals are too full to accept psychiatric patients.

Both the University of Mississippi Medical Center and Merit Health Central have repeatedly been on psychiatric diversion – meaning neither are accepting new patients – since July 4. 

It’s not clear when the facilities became full. MED-COM, the state’s hub for medical communication for emergency response hospitals, agencies and first responders, is housed under UMMC and operates a diversion board showing which hospitals are at capacity throughout each day. 

UMMC spokespeople declined to provide information about what health facilities were on psych diversion over the holiday weekend. UMMC officials also did not respond to questions about the closure’s impact on UMMC’s psychiatric bed availability. 

As of July 10, both health systems remain on psych diversion, while Merit Health Rankin’s geriatric psychiatric facility has also been added to the list.

While Merit Health Central’s June census was slightly higher than May’s, hospital spokespeople declined to attribute the uptick to the St. Dominic closure and said it was in line with what they’ve observed over the past two years. 

“Demand for behavioral health services is high and we, along with other hospitals in the area, have seen an increase in patients seeking services,” said Melanie McMillan, Merit’s Jackson and Vicksburg area marketing manager, in an emailed statement. 

McMillan said that when the hospital is at capacity, patients are referred to the closest available behavioral health facility, and if that’s not an option, patients are cared for on-site in the emergency department until a bed is available.  

St. Dominic announced it was shuttering its behavioral health services unit on June 5, citing financial challenges in recent years. The 83-bed unit unit had been providing inpatient mental health and geriatric psychiatric treatment. 

Despite saying in a statement announcing the closure that St. Dominic’s was working with partners “to help patients access the care they need,” spokesperson Meredith Bailess responded to Mississippi Today’s most recent questions that the health facility is still “exploring” those potential partners. 

“We have been pleased to receive outreach from a number of interested organizations and are in active conversations,” she said. “We do not have more specific information to share at this time.”

On the heels of the closure, community members and advocates expressed concerns about the availability of mental health services in the Jackson area. 

St. Dominic was one of only two single point-of-entry hospitals for Hinds Behavioral Health Services for people with mental health issues in the Jackson area. When Hinds has a single point-of-entry agreement in place with a hospital, patients referred by Hinds can be immediately admitted for care and bypass emergency rooms. Now, the only remaining one is Merit Health Central, which has 71 psychiatric beds, according to the state Department of Health

The other option is the Hinds Behavioral Health 16-bed crisis stabilization unit, one of 14 regional community health centers throughout the state. The unit operates 24/7 and is aimed at avoiding institutionalization and stabilizing people undergoing crises.

CSUs do not accept every referral, however. They can be turned away because of lack of space or if they are deemed too violent. Data from a records request revealed that from January 2022 to March 2023, the Hinds CSU had 109 admissions and 194 denials. 

Jamie Evans, the supervisor of the mobile crisis unit at Hinds, wouldn’t comment on that data. She said when the facility is full, however, they contact CSUs in other regions of Mississippi. The next closest is in Brookhaven about an hour away.

Angela Ladner, executive director of the Mississippi Psychiatric Association, said it’s too soon to say if the diversions are related to the St. Dominic closure, but it does add urgency to the situation.

“When you take a community as large as the Jackson area … I’m not sure how it couldn’t put a strain on other facilities,” Ladner said.

UMMC has 33 beds, and while the Mississippi State Hospital has recently reopened 20 adult psychiatric beds, its wait time averages two days. 

Evans reported that the demand of the unit’s services remains steady and that CSU hasn’t seen an increase in patients since the St. Dominic closure. However, it has taken more coordination with all of the stakeholders involved to fill the gap left by St. Dominic, she said. 

“In some instances, it may have called for a little longer wait time, but we have not had to turn anyone away,” she said. “We will not turn anyone around who is experiencing a mental health emergency. We will do whatever we need to do to ensure that they receive the assistance they need.”

Hinds recently received funding to open a second CSU, but it’s not clear when that will be. And while Merit Health Central in Jackson plans to open an additional 50 behavioral health beds — 20 adolescent, 20 adult and 10 chemical dependency — that won’t happen until later this summer.

Collaboration is needed more than ever to avoid the worst-case scenario — mentally ill people being jailed, Ladner said. 

The Legislature passed House Bill 1222 this session, which requires mental health training for law enforcement to reduce the incidence of that scenario, but the impact of that legislation isn’t instantaneous.

Ladner stressed that if the number of available psychiatric beds in Jackson don’t increase “in a very speedy manner,” the consequences could be dire.

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Devna Bose, a Neshoba County native, covers community health. She is a 2019 graduate of the University of Mississippi, where she studied print journalism and was a member of the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College. Before joining Mississippi Today, Devna reported on education at Chalkbeat Newark and at the Post and Courier’s Education Lab, and on race and social justice at the Charlotte Observer. Her work has appeared in the Hechinger Report, the Star-Ledger and the Associated Press, and she has appeared on WNYC to discuss her reporting. Devna has been awarded for her coverage of K-12 education in the Carolinas.