The North Florida Regional Medical Center plans to open the new Behavioral Health Center on Feb. 17 to address a bed shortage in psychiatric units in Florida. The unit will work with community psychiatrists to treat patients with mental illnesses.
Mark Steinbauer, the Center’s interim director, said it will specialize in general adult psychiatry, including cases of bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia.
Florida has 17 behavioral health beds per 100,000 people, according to the North Florida Regional Medical Center. According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, experts say there is a need for about 50 public psychiatric beds per 100,000 people.
The addition will feature 20 beds. A 2010 United States Census found Gainesville has a population of 124,354.
There are about 66 adult psychiatric beds in the UF Health Shands Psychiatric Hospital, and 32 adult beds in Meridian Behavioral Healthcare Crisis Stabilization Unit.
“At any given time, North Florida Regional Medical Center has people coming into the emergency department with psychiatric disturbance, and there’s no place to send them because the beds are all full,” Steinbauer said.
The fourth floor of the hospital’s North Tower was entirely rebuilt for the unit, which could receive patients from the hospital’s other branches in Ocala and Lake City, he said.
Debra Pittman, the unit’s director of nursing, said staff members will educate patients about their medication and mental illness, which will help patients understand how they are affected. Directors are still recruiting nurses, therapists and other medical staff to fill 20 to 30 new positions.
According to the Florida Department of Children and Families, 111,000 individuals were examined under the Baker Act, a Florida law that states the legal procedures for the examination and treatment of patients with mental health issues.
“I want patients to know that we want to build trust with them and that there’s an expectation for them to be involved in the treatment,” Pittman said.
Also, psychiatrists will be contacted when their patients are discharged to inform the doctors about the treatment received, she said.
Dr. Michael Johnson, the medical director at Gainesville’s Sarkis Family Psychiatry, said in the 25 years he’s been a psychiatrist, he’s seen many patients hospitalized and sent to unfamiliar doctors who don’t contact their psychiatrist for the patient’s history.
The opportunity to be involved in a patient’s hospital care is a huge step forward for psychiatrists to provide further aid to patients, Johnson said.
Johnson said mental health facilities are important because without them, prisons have become the place where people with mental illness are sent. While he said it is natural for people to fear anyone who seems abnormal, only a small fraction of patients with mental illness are dangerous.
Dr. Elias Sarkis, a psychiatrist at Sarkis Family Psychiatry, said severely mentally ill people are more likely to be victims of violence and assault compared to people without a mental illness.
People with serious mental illness take part in about 4 percent of violent crimes, but they are 11 or more times as likely to be the victims of these crimes, according to the New York Times.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness reported in 2010 that about 31 percent of female inmates and 14 percent of male inmates have serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. In 2008, about 24,600 adults with mental illness were imprisoned in Florida.
Johnson said psychiatric patients who are violent need to be put in hospitals, but people would rather build prisons than figure out how to treat patients so they’re not violent.
Pittman said the Behavioral Health Center will focus on providing continuous care for patients.
“The goal is to help them develop skills to go into the community and be successful,” she said.