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Cheboygan behavioral health facility to bring much-needed services to the region

The Justin A Borra Behavioral Health Center is currently under construction and is slated to open in May, 2023.
Michael Livingston
The Justin A. Borra Behavioral Health Center is currently under construction and is slated to open in May, 2023.

Officials say getting mental health care in Northern Michigan remains extremely difficult. The sheer distance between inpatient beds and rural communities creates significant burdens.

But a new project is looking to offset the severe lack of inpatient beds in the region.

The Justin A. Borra Behavioral Health Center is an 18-bed mental health unit currently under construction at the McLaren Hospital in Cheboygan.

Laura Daniel spearheads the project. She’s the director of behavioral health services at McLaren Northern Michigan.

Daniel said the new facility will fill a need that hasn’t been met in a decade.

Before McLaren acquired the medical campus, it was the Cheboygan Memorial Hospital. While in the process of acquisition by McLaren in 2012, the hospital closed for five weeks due to financial struggles, forcing the community to travel for basic health care needs.

“It was probably the worst day of this community's life when the hospital closed,” Daniel said. “And we were really fortunate that McLaren came in.”

But because the hospital didn’t comply with state standards at the time, McLaren could only keep the emergency rooms, the outpatient surgery unit and some medical laboratories open.

Meaning, the new behavioral health unit will be the first inpatient beds the Cheboygan area has had since 2012. But, the impact of new mental health beds stretches throughout the region.

According to data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, there are about 2,300 adult in-patient mental health beds in the state. Only 89 of those are north of Roscommon County.

Even though population density is a huge factor in that number, MDHHS data estimates adult bed capacity will need to nearly double in Northern Michigan to keep up with demand.

Those numbers are even more severe for youth under 18.

Bob Sheehan is Executive Director of the Community Mental Health Association of Michigan. He said much of the problem falls on staffing shortages that are felt across the country and made worse by the pandemic.

“Trying to find an inpatient psychiatric bed across the country is hard,” Sheehan said. “A lot of hospitals weren't built to deal with behavioral challenges or the staff weren't trained to deal with behavioral challenges.”

Daniel said it's typical to transport patients downstate or out-of-state to find an available bed.

“So, families can't go down and be with them because they need to continue to work or the expenses of traveling or staying somewhere is too much,” she said.

While 18 beds may seem like a small amount, they could save families valuable time and money they would use on transportation.

They may also save taxpayers dollars.

Often, those who enter inpatient care are simultaneously going through the criminal justice system. A court can order someone seek inpatient psychiatric care if they are repeatedly violent or suicidal.

It’s police who often transport offenders from their homes to court rooms, to care facilities and more.

Cheboygan County undersheriff Tim Cook says the cost of travel could significantly reduce with inpatient beds located right down the road.

“We do have to travel and transport some of these patients to Kalamazoo or Northville, or Detroit,” Cook said. That takes up resources from the local community that we need to keep in the community.”

Daniel said completing the new unit is only the beginning. McLaren is expected to invest $26 million in total into the Cheboygan campus.

Phase one of the project also includes an outpatient program for those who are stable enough to spend the majority of their time recovering at home but still needs partial in-patient care.

A few years down the line, Daniel said the hospital will go under major construction for a new emergency department.

When that’s done, the old facility will be repurposed into something called an EmPath unit. It’s basically a large, communal space used to calm patients who are dealing with minor mental health episodes.

The unit is slated to open in May.

Daniel said offering a large variety of services is paramount to investing in mental health care. But being surrounded by professionals that truly care is a must.

“I just want whatever door that person comes through in our campus, is going to be the right door,” she said. “And even if we can’t provide the services they need at the moment, we can do something to help them.”

Michael Livingston covers the area around the Straits of Mackinac - including Cheboygan, Charlevoix, Emmet and Otsego counties as a Report for America corps member.