When Umatilla County Commissioner John Shafer worked for the Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office, he says, he saw far too many people in the middle of a mental health crisis who ended up in the Umatilla County Jail because there were no available beds for them at an inpatient mental health facility.

“They’ve turned our jail into a mental health facility, and our corrections staff are not mental health professionals,” he said.

Shafer said there is a “humongous need” for psychiatric hospital beds in the state, which is why he is excited that Umatilla County now has those beds located right in the county as Aspen Springs Psychiatric Hospital opens in Hermiston.

The 16-bed hospital at 1212 Linda Avenue is run by Lifeways, Inc., a community mental health provider whose services cover parts of Eastern Oregon and Idaho. Lifeways held a ribbon-cutting celebration for the facility on Thursday, June 24.

“We’re just really excited to start serving the community,” said Aspen Springs Administrator Jana Flatau.

She said it should just take a few more days for the state to do its final licensing survey before they can start taking patients who are experiencing an acute mental health crisis and need inpatient care. After a brief, scaled-down “soft opening” period, the facility will offer 16 spots for people temporarily in need of 24-hour care while they are in crisis.

“Our main focus will be Eastern Oregon, but we will be serving the entire state,” she said.

Oregon’s shortage of beds for psychiatric patients has been a topic of concern across the state, but particularly in Eastern Oregon. As a county commissioner, Shafer said when people asked him during his campaign what Umatilla County’s top problem is, there was no doubt in his mind it was inadequate resources for addressing mental health.

He criticized state government for cutting thousands of mental health beds, including the Blue Mountain Recovery Center in Pendleton in 2014. He also said the state needs a mental health-oriented version of the Justice Reinvestment Program, which focuses on reducing recidivism by funding additional supervision and supports for people who are released from prison.

He said he has heard area residents say they were afraid to send their loved ones to inpatient mental health treatment in a secure facility because they didn’t want them “locked up like a common criminal.”

But when he toured Aspen Springs he was pleasantly surprised by how inviting the building was.

“I thought it would look like a jail,” he said.

Instead, Aspen Springs is painted in warm colors, with paintings of aspen trees on each patient’s private bedroom. Everything in the rooms is designed with patient safety in mind, such as the lightweight mats stuck to the wall with Velcro that provide privacy in their bathroom area but prevent them from barricading themselves inside. Patients also have access to common areas, including a landscaped, fenced courtyard where they can get fresh air, a reflection room and a common area where they can play games or watch television.

There are also private rooms where patients can meet with a therapists or family member.

Flatau said one of the benefits of someone being able to receive care in their own community is that their support system of friends and family is usually nearby.

That can help as they transition out of the hospital and into less intensive treatment.

During the June 24 ribbon-cutting ceremony, Dennis Burke, CEO of Good Shepherd Health Care System, told the audience that people in a mental health crisis often end up in the hospital’s emergency room. When that happened, it was not unusual for them to end up being transported across the state for the inpatient mental health care they need.

“Finding a place to put that individual is a challenge,” he said.

He said Good Shepherd had looked at a lot of options for inpatient mental health care in the past, but recruiting professionals themselves proved difficult and when they looked at various private organizations “nothing felt right.” He said they are excited about Lifeways’ project and looking forward to working closely with Lifeways to provide future care.

Tim Hoekstra, CEO of Lifeways, said the organization’s mission is to work with community partners to increase peoples’ health and well-being.

“Aspen Springs will serve as an essential service to help our communities continue to develop a full continuum of care,” he said. “We believe there is always hope for healing and well-being. We envision Aspen Springs Hospital being a safe port for those in need. We hope to be a new starting point for many in their journey toward healing and well-being.”

For more information about Aspen Springs Psychiatric Hospital, visit lifeways.org/aspen-springs or call 541-289-2340.

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