A new psychiatric hospital in east Pasco aims to help an underserved demand for mental health care in the county.
North Tampa Behavioral Health opened Oct. 1 on State Road 56 in Wesley Chapel. According to CEO Jim Harris, the hospital has 70-plus employees and 25 beds, with plans to expand to 75 beds and accept Baker Act and Marchman Act patients in coming months.
In Florida, the Baker Act is a way of providing emergency services and temporary detention for mental health evaluation and treatment, on either a voluntary or involuntary basis. The Marchman Act is similar, but for people with addiction issues.
"There was an absolute need … in east Pasco," Harris said.
The hospital joins two other institutions in the county accepting Baker Act patients — Morton Plant North Bay Hospital Recovery Center in Land O'Lakes and Medical Center of Trinity-West Pasco Campus in New Port Richey.
The demand for a new facility, Harris said, underscores the need. Pasco sheriff's Lt. Larry Engle agrees. He trains law enforcement officers to deal with mentally ill residents, and he's on the board of the Pasco chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Health.
Mental health care in Pasco County is underfunded, he said, and doesn't have enough resources to serve the population.
"Most of the people who have serious and persistent mental illness often don't have jobs or insurance," Engle said. "Typically, most get into the system through a Baker Act, and when it gets to the point that they end up in crisis."
Once released from institutional care, he said, the cycle repeats because many people don't have the transportation, money and means to get more medication when they leave. So, eventually they act out again and end up back in the system.
This puts a burden, he said, on local hospitals. He estimates about one-third of all mental health treatment done at Pasco hospitals is written off as unpaid.
Another issue, Harris said, is people may not seek treatment for fear of how it will make them look to friends and family.
Stigma and shame are brothers and sisters, Harris said, and are obstacles to mental health care.
"We work to minimize and normalize those issues so they can focus on their treatments," he said.
According to the Annual Report of Baker Act Data released this year, Pasco County had 4,735 instances of involuntary hospitalizations in 2011. By comparison, Hernando had 1,391 and Pinellas had 9,861.
Doug Leonardo, executive director for BayCare Behavioral Health, said Pasco County has specific problems with substance abuse, namely prescription and synthetic drugs. Also, he said the county is third in the state in heavy abuse of alcohol.
What's more, Leonardo said, one in five adults will experience some sort of mental health issue every year.
More funding for mental health programs would help. He said Florida is 49th in the nation for mental health funding and 36th for substance abuse.
At the Pasco-Pinellas Public Defender's Office, Vasilios "Billy" Major, who does social service work, sees people with mental health issues come through the system all the time.
"What you're going to find is that you have more access to treatments getting involved with the legal system than not," he said. "Parents have said to me, 'Well, you can't help me right now but you're saying if my son is arrested you can help him.' "
One bright spot is the jail diversion program run by his office. Major said more than 1,400 people have been diverted from jail or prosecution to get treatment for various mental maladies.
Like the others though, he says it's not enough, and relayed the need for more funding.
Major said it costs about $70 a day to house an inmate in the jail. That person can be sent to certain treatment centers, he said, for about $20 a day.
"If you look at the economics," he said, "it's in the county's favor."