EmPATH: a safe, supportive place during mental health crises

New service at Sanford Bemidji treats behavioral health, eases pressure on ER

EmPATH: a safe, supportive place during mental health crises

When the new Sanford Bemidji Crisis Center opened last fall, it became the first in the region to offer an innovative new way to treat patients in need of emergency mental health care.

The center houses an EmPATH unit, short for Emergency Psychiatric Assessment, Treatment and Healing.

“Reviewing the needs of the community identified two large needs. One was the need for adult inpatient beds. People were having to travel great distances, dividing families, and their family really couldn’t follow them to get treatment and work together,” said Jay Coughenour, director of behavioral health at Sanford Bemidji Medical Center in Minnesota. “The second was the people that were in crisis, and being able to try to slow that down and really identify what people need.”

A calming, quiet space to heal

The EmPATH unit is comprised of a family, adult and children’s space with multiple recliners, games and puzzles, opportunities to color or interact with an iPad, all of which allow the patient a chance to decompress. Mental health providers then help build skills, such as anger management, anxiety reduction or depression reduction, all in a calm setting where patients can receive individually tailored care for up to 23 hours.

“The crisis is defined by the person experiencing the crisis,” said Kirsten Craft, clinical manager of urgent and emergent services at Sanford Bemidji.

An individual may be experiencing increased mental health symptoms due to environmental stressors, she said, or a situation such as a conflict with a significant other, a sibling, a parent or guardian, which may result in increased emotional distress. The EmPATH unit will provide a supportive environment to help manage those symptoms.

“We meet their needs in a safe, supervised environment that is voluntary. We are meeting patients’ needs in a space that is open for them to learn and practice skills to better manage their mental health symptoms. Individuals can return home and then we call and follow up with them to check in. If individuals express the need for additional support, they can come back to the EmPATH unit for additional support. This is a new way to think about supporting individuals in the community.”

This facility is the first in the state to feature separate EmPATH units for adults and children. There is also a unit for families, as well as spaces that have been designed for cultural and spiritual healing, particularly for Indigenous patients.

“The beliefs that you have and the people that you have around you and your culture is very important to your recovery process,” said Coughenour. “To not truly try to integrate that into the work that we do would be egregious.”

Safer, more effective mental health care

Aside from offering a safe space for patients, the unit also frees up other areas of service as well. Most importantly it eases pressure on the hospital’s emergency department, which can be overwhelmed with patients and overwhelming for someone going through a mental health crisis.

“The emergency room is naturally chaotic and can be overwhelming. Now we can take them out of that environment and put them into a calm, supportive environment where we can meet their mental health needs. In that time an individual may experience a reduction in mental health symptoms, be able to safety plan and return home, all  while remaining in the community,” said Craft.

“Creating a space where people can feel differently and then they can have that mental capacity to be able to think about creating hope, it’s pretty exciting.”

If a patient is in crisis, one option is to call Sanford Bemidji’s mobile crisis team at 1-800-422-0045. That service is available 24 hours a day, all year round. The mobile crisis team may recommend the Crisis Center and the EmPATH unit to those in need.

Whether you’re struggling with suicidal thoughts yourself, or love someone who is, get help now by contacting any of the following:

Visit sanfordhealth.org to find resources, risk factors, warning signs and steps you can take to help a loved one.

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Posted In Behavioral Health, Bemidji, Children's, Emergency Medicine, Here for all. Here for good.