The stark facts of the mental health crisis facing the nation were sobering.
According to National Alliance on Mental Illness, 20% of people will have a mental health illness problem, with 5% of people having a severe problem. But the ability to care for people is woefully restricted.
“Only 50% of the people suffering from mental illness will receive the care they need,” said Dr. David Dunkle, president and CEO of Johnson Memorial Health. “Access to behavioral health care has been a distant reality for many members of our county.”
Treatment for substance use disorder, self harm and other mental health concerns took a massive step forward in Johnson County on Wednesday. Johnson Memorial Health officials and staff, as well as local government leaders and community supporters, gathered to break ground on a new behavioral health facility.
The $11 million annex will be constructed next to the hospital’s existing Franklin campus, with the hopes to be completed in late 2024 or early 2025.
At a time when mental and behavioral health is severely underserved, the new complex is a clear step toward addressing the problem.
“It’s going to be a huge success for this community,” said Kevin Walls, a Johnson County Commissioner. “It’s been needed for years, and it’s a daunting task to take. We’re undertaking that task, and we’re going to succeed in that task.”
Plans have been in place for the behavioral health hospital since 2021, though discussions on building a facility dedicated to it have been ongoing for many years prior. When the county received $31 million from the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, it provided the financial resources to begin concrete planning.
The Johnson County ARPA Committee, which is made up of the three county commissioners and three county council members, officially got the ball rolling on the project in the summer of 2022. They earmarked roughly $8 million at the time for this building and later increased it to about $10 million.
Initial concerns of the committee focused on avoiding having county government running the mental health facility. They wanted to instead bring in a private health care provider, and found a willing partner with Johnson Memorial Health.
“This groundbreaking ceremony is a testament to our commitment to addressing mental health issues at a local level, recognizing the urgent need for accessible and high-quality behavioral health services in our community,” said Marty Umbarger, chairperson of the Johnson Memorial Health board of trustees. “Mental health is not an abstract concern; it is a deeply personal and community-wide matter that affects all of us.”
From the hospital’s perspective, the need for behavioral health services is apparent every day.
“Our emergency department here at Johnson Memorial Health constantly has to search for beds for our residents. We’re transferring people to as far away as Vigo County recently to receive the care they need,” Dunkle said.
Seven years ago, behavioral health access was identified as the No. 1 problem facing county residents by the Johnson Memorial Health Foundation, Dunkle said. Efforts have been made to improve behavioral health services, including raising awareness of the issue in the community, and adding a mental health navigator and social worker to provide counseling.
“It’s a huge day,” Dunkle said. “Looking at the mental health crisis in the United States, it’s sad how many people cannot get the care they need. It’s a big problem that’s not going to get fixed overnight, but we’re trying to do our part,” Dunkle said. “At the federal level, the state level, there are attempts with funding, but truly the difference gets made at the local level.”
The new facility will be constructed on a 3-acre plot of land that Johnson Memorial Health already owns. The 25-bed inpatient facility will feature care provided by Johnson Memorial and Horizon Health, a behavioral health management provider the health care system partners with.
“This goes back to putting the patient first. This county should be really proud of all of the stakeholders who put this all together,” Dunkle said.
The behavioral health complex is being designed by Cripe, an Indianapolis architecture firm, with the project overseen by Wurster Construction.
While the mood was understandably celebratory Wednesday afternoon, everyone present understood that much work remained. Walls emphasized that the entire community, including local government, needs to ensure funding is maintained to keep the center working.
“The 29 beds that are going to be provided are way too small, but it’s the only funding we have to do this,” he said. “We need sustainable funding. You can talk to anyone on this committee from day one, and it’s always been sustainability. It has to last, and we have to make it last.”
Still, with the first shovelfuls of dirt to get construction started, the county is moving in a positive direction.
“The new facility will be a sanctuary for healing, offering compassionate care, innovative treatments and a supportive environment for those suffering from mental health challenges,” Umbarger said.