By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
VISALIA – A proposed mental health facility has changed some of its plans after people living near the project mounted strong opposition a year ago.
Last month, Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency’s (HHSA) Mental Health branch held a community forum on Dec. 12 to discuss changes to the Visalia Wellness Center planning to open in vacant office space at 1223 S. Lovers Lane in Visalia. Tammie Weyker-Adkins, public information officer for HHSA, said the county sent out 400 invitations to the forum but only two community members attended the meeting. While the turnout was low Weyker-Adkins said the county had made strides in addressing some of the concerns of residents living near the project.
The purpose of the forum was to share with the community the architect’s drawings of changes to the outside of the building and receive feedback. Weyker-Adkins said exterior improvements include adding a garden area, a gazebo, landscaping, lighting, and fencing. HHSA staff also proposed new operating hours.
“Given that the community had expressed some hesitancy regarding the Wellness Center during the Community Forums in February the MH Branch of HHSA proposed a winter and summer schedule,” Weyker-Adkins said.
Winter hours proposed for the center are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Summer hours would be extended until 7 p.m. on weeknights.
About 50 community members attended two community listening sessions last February, most of whom were not in favor of the facility. Some of the issues raised were mental health patients sharing a bus stop with children on Lovers Lane, unstable mental health patients being treated near homes, and an increase in the number of homeless people.
Dr. Timothy Durick, director of Mental Health Services for the County, explained on more than one occasion that the 5,600-square foot facility would not operate as a treatment clinic, methadone clinic, medication service provider nor a residential program. The facility is drug and alcohol free and would serve individuals who are near the end of their “wellness and recovery journey” and not those recently diagnosed or receiving “intensive services.” He also reiterated that recovering addicts and sex offenders are treated in completely different programs, such as the criminal justice system, and not through mental health services.
Dr. Christie Lupkes, who oversees the Managed Care Division of Mental Health Services for Tulare County, said there will be a maximum of 50 people attending various activities at the facility but usually no more 20 or 30 at one time. Mental Health patients in Tulare County typically are diagnosed with post traumatic stress, borderline personality, bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia. Instead of receiving “treatment” these people will have peer counseling sessions and classes. Classes could include cooking, budgeting, computer classes, interviewing skills and vocational training that are supervised by mental health professionals and structured to provide a sense of normalcy.
Colleen Overholt, regional clinical services director for Kings View, said it is difficult to project exactly what type of activities would be at the center because that is largely decided by the community and those seeking services there. She said there are about 60 wellness centers operating throughout California that offer varying activities that touch on the eight dimensions of health: emotional, financial, social, spiritual, occupational, physical, intellectual and environmental.
Durick said the wellness and recovery center will be similar to a sister facility that opened in Porterville last May. The facility, operated by Kings View Behavioral Health Systems in Kings County, employs three full-time County employees and 10 part time peer staff members to run programming. The peer staff members who have either been diagnosed with a mental health issue or who have cared for a family member with a mental disorder. The monthly calendar is full of art classes, gardening, cooking courses and fun activities such as game nights and karaoke.