TRAVERSE CITY — When it comes to behavioral health issues in the Grand Traverse community, navigating the network of services strains those who seek them, their families and even those who provide the needed care.
At a listening session hosted by Grand Traverse County this week, representatives from several agencies that serve children and adults with mental health issues, substance use disorder and developmental disabilities say services are siloed, there are gaps in services, there are not enough psychiatrists to serve the population and there is not enough money.
The session was led by county Administrator Nate Alger and consultant Sarah Bannon, who was hired to lead the county through the process of leaving the six-county Northern Lakes Community Mental Health Authority and forming its own authority.
The Grand Traverse County Board in May voted to dissolve an enabling agreement that in 2003 created the Northern Lakes authority that also includes Crawford, Leelanau, Missaukee, Roscommon and Wexford counties. Dissolving the agreement would mean the NLCMHA would no longer exist. Since then, commissioners opted to reexamine the agreement before making the final decision to leave.
County board Chairman Rob Hentschel said the county right now is on two possible paths — one that would explore departure from Northern Lakes and forming a smaller entity. The other is to explore whether the CMH could remain intact by improving services.
“Can Northern Lakes come together to somehow meet those gaps that we’re hearing about?” Hentschel asked. “However the other road is not closed.”
On Tuesday, Alger told those gathered that leaders from the six counties in the CMH agreed to enter into a memorandum of understanding that they are committed to improving mental health services and to possibly making changes to the enabling agreement.
“There is no discussion that we are committed to leaving the CMH,” Alger said. “The discussion is how do we move forward.”
Services for children are especially needed. Statistics show there are only 48 state hospital beds for children in Michigan, none of which are located in northern Michigan. Many children who are brought to the Munson Medical Center emergency department sometimes wait there for a psychiatric bed for up to three weeks. Parents must stay with the child and when a bed is found it is far enough away that it creates a hardship for the family.
“We are unable to care for our kids right here in our community when they experience a crisis,” said Gina Aranki, executive director of Child and Family Services Northwest Michigan. “For us to be able to care for our kids and adults right in their own community is a step towards creating a fully healthy community.”
Paula Lipinski, CEO of Addiction Treatment Services, said the agency has a waiting list of clients who need other services. Lisa Klepper, special education supervisor at Creekside School, said children are on waiting lists for more than a year for residential treatment and psychiatric services.
Pat Nuffer is on the board of the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the parent of two sons who receive services.
“I just want to encourage all agencies to open their eyes and think outside the box in terms of being able to include parents in the conversations and in the decision-making and to be able to help us cut through some of the red tape that parents face in hospitalizations and with agencies to be able to get accurate information about our sons and daughters,” Nuffer said.
The county has $18 million in American Rescue Plan Act money and a committee that formed earlier this year will make recommendations to the GTC commission on how it will be spent. Mental health services were named a priority by both the committee and by a community survey done this summer.
Alger, a law enforcement officer for 26 years before becoming the county administrator, said he has seen many horrific things that could have easily been avoided with better mental health services, especially for those in crisis — many who end up in jail.
Solutions such as pairing trained officers with mental health workers to respond to crises, rather that uniformed officers in a police car, are being looked at.
There are also plans to create a Grand Traverse County Wellness Center that would be open 24/7 to offer crisis stabilization and residential services for children and adults. The center would serve to divert people from jails and emergency rooms.
Alger said information gathered Tuesday will be used to recreate the enabling agreement and determine which services can realistically be offered through Northern Lakes.
“It will take a long time to fix this and it will have to be done in bites,” Alger said.