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Vermont state leaders break ground on Essex mental health facility

Published: Oct. 15, 2021 at 7:01 AM EDT
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ESSEX, Vt. (WCAX) - State and local officials broke ground Friday on a brand new, $16 million psychiatric facility in Essex. The state has taken a few strides to put more inpatient beds online since Tropical Storm Irene destroyed the Vermont State Hospital in 2011, but the need for acute care has grown exponentially over the past decade, putting the state perpetually one step behind.

Actual construction on the new 16-bed residential recovery facility will begin next week, starting with the demolition of the former Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center. Lawmakers agree the project is long overdue.

The vision was originally born out of Tropical Storm Irene, a crisis that Vermont officials say became a blessing in disguise. Governor Phil Scott says the state-of-the-art building will give struggling Vermonters the proper level of mental health care in the most appropriate settings. “The facility will use the latest programming and treatment designed to support recovery, giving individuals the tools they need to be successful when they’re ready to transition back to their communities,” Scott said.

The facility will serve as a step-down from inpatient hospitalization, meaning people in hospital beds can move here when they’re no longer in acute crisis. That allows people waiting for treatment in emergency rooms to get beds in the hospital.

Vt. Mental Health Commissioner Emily Hawes says the system is a continuum that gets stressed when one piece of the puzzle is out of place. “We know today, care facilities that feel more like a home than an institution and that allow easy access to nature helps residents feel safe, which in turn aids recovery,” she said.

But providing a bright, compassionate space hasn’t always been the state’s priority. “I remember thinking how can anyone get well here,” said Vt. District Judge Christina Reiss, recalling a touring of the former Vermont State Hospital’s Waterbury complex before Irene. She says it was depressing -- like an army barracks connected by dark underground tunnels.

Lawmakers say Reiss played an integral role in this project, pushing lawmakers to invest in a permanent replacement. “Jails and emergency rooms should be the last resort, not the first and only option,” Reiss said.

In 2011, the state lost 54 beds to the storm. The state immediately opened 14 more beds at the Brattleboro Retreat and six at Rutland Regional Medical Center. In 2013, the seven-bed Middlesex Therapeutic Community Residence was created. Then, in 2015, The Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital in Berlin opened with 25 beds. But that was still 12 fewer beds than the former state hospital.

Those tight, temporary units in Middlesex have fallen apart, making the Essex facility all the more crucial. The legislation for this new facility passed in the wake of Irene. “The Legislature, the governor, the administration is excited because we know we haven’t done a number one job in that area. With this facility we will move ahead and treat people as they should be treated,” said Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Chittenden County.

The center is slated to open in October 2023 where Woodside currently stands. The next challenge will be filling the more than 60 staff clinical and support staff positions: 14 full-time nonclinical staff to support facilities and administrative responsibilities and 49 full-time clinical staff to support needs of the residents.

Woodside Juvenile Rehabilitation Center served as the state’s youth detention center until it was permanently closed in October 2020.

RECOVERY RESIDENCE DETAILS

A clinician will be available on site 24/7, meaning the facility can admit residents after hours or on weekends.

As part of the programming based on modern research, residents will have shared community spaces to gather, eat meals, garden, and practice skills.

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