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A crowd showed up for an open house Saturday showcasing the Billings Clinic’s new Psychiatric Stabilization Unit.

Located in the remodeled northwest corner of the hospital’s Psychiatric Center, the 3,500-square foot unit brings with it a new philosophy of how to help patients grappling with mental health emergencies.

Donors, physicians, staff and the general public toured the facility, listened to a series of talks and watched as officials cut a ceremonial ribbon. The new unit is scheduled to open March 26.

In the past, patients who arrived in the emergency department in psychiatric distress underwent an initial medical exam. Then, if an additional mental health evaluation was needed, they remained in the ED sometimes for hours until that evaluation could be done.

Now, after patients requiring a psych evaluation are medically cleared, they will be taken to the new stabilization unit. They can remain there for up to 24 hours before they are admitted to inpatient care or released.

The new unit is light and airy, with windows to look out and colorful Michael Sample photographs of outdoor scenes decorating many of the walls. The addition includes two large rooms, one that can hold a dozen adults and the other, separate space for up to five youths.

Each room contains recliners, chairs and tables where patients can rest, interact with staff or with each other. Also included are calming rooms large enough for one patient to de-escalate.

The stabilization unit is based on a philosophy called the Alameda model. It was conceived by Dr. Scott Zeller, longtime psychiatrist who honed the concept while chief of emergency services at the Alameda Health System in California.

In a January visit to Billings Clinic, Zeller said he and his colleagues found that staff intermingling with patients in a large dedicated space with comfortable chairs allowed patients to calm down and staff the time to observe their behavior. People were “treated as individuals rather than inmates,” Zeller said.

Donors covered the entire cost of the new unit, Jim Duncan, president of the Billings Clinic Foundation, told the crowd.

“Philanthropy paid for this, and in addition to paying for construction, we raised enough money to have $750,000 for an endowment just for this unit,” Duncan said.

The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust awarded Billings Clinic a $784,271 grant to help pay for the cost of construction. Another $1 million was raised from the 2016 Billings Clinic Classic, with $750,000 going toward the endowment.

Eric Kurtz, program officer of rural healthcare for the Helmsley charitable trust, said the organization focuses on investing in health care solutions “that have a real sustainable, tangible and significant impact in rural communities.”

He called the new unit health care innovation at its finest. That’s important in a state whose rural character creates challenging circumstances for health care delivery, and especially for mental health care, he said.

“This stabilization unit will provide unbelievable services for a population that really struggles with psychiatric illness at a crucial point in their lives,” Kurtz said.

Dr. Randall Gibb, Billings Clinic CEO, said his organization grapples every day with how best to address the mental health needs of its patients, the community and the health crisis that exists in the United States.

“We have seen tragedy at the national level recently,” Gibb said. “But we have also seen ways in which we can innovate and transform the way we take care of patients so that we can truly see hope.”

Through this project, Gibb said, "we can better meet the needs of our patients and give people a dedicated and comfortable place that will allow them to seek immediate treatment.”

Dr. Eric Arzubi, Billings Clinic department chair of Psychiatry, reminded the crowd that last year, patients in the inpatient psychiatric unit came from 90 percent of Montana’s counties and 40 percent of Wyoming’s counties.

Montana has consistently had one of the highest suicide rates for the past 40 years, Arzubi said, and it is one of four states that doesn’t have a psychiatric training program. State Medicaid cuts are resulting in fewer case management services and the closure of some mental health centers.

“We need to get ahead of this,” he said. “We need to get upstream from the problem and think creatively and innovatively.”

One step in the right direction is the new Psychiatric Stabilization Unit, which Arzubi called “a huge thing but still a small part of our vision.”

His department is also in talks with the University of Washington to open a psychiatric residency training program in Billings. Tele-psychiatry is another technology that can bring mental health care to outlying rural communities, he said.

Creating the new unit is not a money-maker, he said.

“But it’s the right thing to do,” Arzubi said. “Mental illness is the No. 1 cause of medical disability in the United States and we have to address it head on.”

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General Assignment and Health Care Reporter

General assignment and healthcare reporter at The Billings Gazette.