By Ben McNeely
The gift of a suncatcher became a symbol of hope as local and federal officials gathered with hospital executives at Garner Town Hall in southern Wake County to announce the awarding of $12 million in funding to help build a new mental health facility..
Rachel Moorefield was in the audience. In 2018, her son Isaac died by suicide at the age of 19. Her family, through their grief, made suncatchers as a way to remember Isaac and his sunny personality. She brought one to the announcement ceremony to symbolize and celebrate support for the cause of mental health care.
Moorefield, who recently moved to North Carolina from Minnesota, said having access to compassionate care is essential for people dealing with mental health issues. Compassion, she said, is something that Isaac didn’t receive as she and her family looked for the help he needed to treat his depression.
“The problems that we ran into was, one, getting him admitted and feeling like he was in a prison, feeling like it was in the basement,” Moorefield said. “[The psychiatric unit] was tucked in a corner, they were wearing brown garb, there were locks on the doors and there wasn’t any feeling of hope for him.
“It just felt like here you are, and here, we’re going to keep you and then send you on your way,” Moorefield said.
Now, WakeMed is aiming to change the way mental health care is delivered, with a new campus in the state’s largest county.
The Raleigh-based system’s plan is to build two facilities in Garner — a 45-bed acute care hospital and a 150-bed mental health and wellness hospital — at a campus near White Oak Road and Timber Drive East, an area that has seen explosive growth in the past few years.
On Friday, the health system announced $12 million in government funding toward the new mental health hospital — with Wake County chipping $6 million and the federal government giving the other $6 million. U.S. Rep. Deborah Ross (D-NC 02) and recently retired U.S. Rep. David Price (D-NC 04) attended the announcement; they had championed the money through the appropriations process in Congress.
The goal of the new hospital is to integrate mental and physical health services into “whole person” treatment, said Donald Gintzig, WakeMed president and CEO.
“We wanted it in the county, we didn’t want it isolated somewhere. We already planned to put an acute-care hospital here. And so why not be bold and innovative around that whole-person concept?” he said.
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health says that “whole person health focuses on restoring health, promoting resilience, and preventing diseases across a lifespan” instead of treating one specific disease at a time.
Gintzig said that in the past, health systems treated mental health differently and, in some cases, didn’t address it at all. But the pandemic exacerbated existing problems, he said, resulting in a rise in drug overdoses, depression and anxiety. People went to emergency rooms for help, creating a problem that health systems have struggled to address.
“I think for years, it was like, ‘Well, if we just don’t look, it’ll go away,’” Gintzig said. “‘We don’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist. Let’s focus on heart disease and all the other things that are important.’ But we also know that it didn’t go away, and it’s not going to go away.”
The health campus is part of a larger mixed-use development being planned by the Town of Garner focused on wellness and innovation.
“This mental health and well-being hospital, along with an acute-care hospital, to be located on the same site, will provide Garner, our town and surrounding counties with easier access and enhanced … care. That will be a huge benefit for our growing area,” said Garner Mayor Ken Marshburn.
Construction on WakeMed’s $137 million-dollar mental health hospital is expected to begin next year, with a potential opening in fall 2026. WakeMed also received the go-ahead from the state for the acute-care hospital, but Duke Health, UNC Health and Oakview ASC, a limited liability corporation based out of Elizabeth City, are appealing the decision. WakeMed said they are confident the decision will be upheld.
This facility in Garner is just the latest in a trend of health care systems establishing freestanding mental health facilities across the state. From April 2022 to April 2023, the NC Department of Health and Human Services issued certificates of need for five mental health facilities in Brunswick, Pitt, Richmond, Wake and Sampson counties.
Change coming for mental health services in Wake County
The planned campus comes as Wake County’s partnership with UNC Health to run the mental health facility at WakeBrook is under a cloud of uncertainty. UNC Health has been running the facility since a 2012 agreement.
The facility, which has been open since 2010, has garnered national attention for its innovative programs that provide comprehensive care for patients, including outpatient, inpatient and substance-use care.
The county’s current contract for inpatient and crisis care with UNC Health ends in November 2024, while UNC Health said it will end other services near the end of this year.
Shinica Thomas, chairwoman of the Wake County Board of Commissioners, said the county is still negotiating with UNC Health to provide services at WakeBrook, after UNC Health said they were leaving.
“If not, then we will be searching for another provider to provide services, so we don’t anticipate that there will be a gap,” Thomas said.
The grant announcement also comes as Wake County has seen a jump in the number of emergency room visits for mental health concerns.
Thomas said a recent study commissioned by Wake County reported that the three hospital systems in the county saw a 40 percent bump in the number of encounters with primarily a mental health diagnosis from 2018 to 2022.
That same study also recommended keeping WakeBrook as a hub for mental health crisis assessments.
“The critical need for a campus like this is clearer now than ever,” she said. “That’s thousands more people who desperately need the right mental health care.”
A new model for Wake County
In Garner, WakeMed plans a different kind of mental health hospital — one that is built around the whole-person model of treatment.
“Our mental health hospital is going to be the crowning jewel of this campus,” said Dr. Micah Krempasky, WakeMed’s chief medical officer of health and well-being. “Not the mental health hospital in the past, not like the traditional psychiatric units in America that are hidden in the corner, with poor visibility and poor accessibility.”
Krempasky said at the grant announcement ceremony that the plans for the new mental health hospital include a gym to promote exercise, a dining area to promote healthy eating and outdoor space to promote the healing effects of nature.
“It’s going to proudly sit next to a big acute-care hospital. And it’s going to unabashedly welcome people into its doors, and celebrate the beauty of helping and supporting mental health,” she said.
Krempasky held up a suncatcher that Moorefield had made, as that symbol of hope, and as a gift to the officials who helped secure the grants.
“It’s so wonderful to hear what WakeMed is doing because we’re letting people know that they’re not a burden, that they’re not a burden to the health care system,” Moorefield said. “They’re not a burden to the community and that we’re here to help them and get them the help that they deserve. And that’s huge. It’s huge.”