An innovative approach to mental health and substance use in Johnson County – The Gazette

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Abbey Ferenzi, executive director of Guidelink Center in the dayroom at the facility, 300 Southgate Avenue, , Iowa, on Wednesday, May 26, 2021. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Emergency rooms certainly have their place in our health care system, but individuals experiencing a mental health or substance crisis often need a different option.

About 20 years ago, urgent care clinics started appearing in our communities for individuals with medical concerns, but no similar clinics existed for people who needed urgent behavioral health care. Today, GuideLink Center is determined to meet this need in Johnson County as well as address other gaps in our health system.

GuideLink Center, 300 Southgate Ave. in Iowa City, is open 24/7 for walk-in services. It is a community-initiated collaboration led by the Johnson County Board of Supervisors, and it has taken years of planning, development and dedication to get off the ground. The center is designed to offer a welcoming space where health care professionals can deliver rapid triage and assessment for adults with mental health and substance use issues. GuideLink Center is not a locked facility — all services are voluntary.

Crisis counselors quickly help assess a person’s’ needs and provide appropriate interventions. This may mean helping someone who is suicidal by providing counseling and a safety plan, linking the person to resources such as a psychiatrist or therapist, or possibly referring them to other services in the building if additional treatment is needed.

These services include the crisis stabilization program (where someone with mental health needs can stay for several days in a private room), medically monitored withdrawal management services (referred to as “detox, ”someone withdrawing from substances can receive medical oversight and care for several days in a private room). These services include the oversight of doctors, nurse practitioners, nurses, licensed social workers, therapists, crisis counselors and support staff. Other supplemental services, such as medication management and peer support, ensure that multiple social, emotional and health care needs are addressed.

GuideLink Center was designated as an “access center” by the East Central Region Governing Board in February. There are currently four access centers in Iowa (with at least two more in development). All must adhere to Iowa Administrative Code but each look and operate somewhat differently.

At GuideLink Center, we have several agencies (Abbe Community Mental Health, Prelude Behavioral Services, Penn Center Inc, CommUnity Crisis Services and Food Bank and Johnson County Ambulance) operating under one roof. UnityPoint Health — AbbeHealth serves as the managing entity and oversees services at GuideLink Center

GuideLink Center has progressed since its “soft” opening on Feb. 15. The center now accepts 24/7 referrals from all sources, has a 12-bed capacity, and has multiple services and providers in the building. In May the “sobering unit” opened to offer law enforcement an alternative to arrest or the ER for individuals who are intoxicated. Since opening, triage counselors have provided services for almost 400 individuals, and the programs in the building have had almost 300 admissions.

The impact of these services stretches beyond these individuals and their families. Local providers, social service agencies, hospitals and law enforcement collaborate with GuideLink Center to work toward improving outcomes for those they serve.

Law enforcement in particular has made significant efforts to collaborate with GuideLink Center. They participate in regular meetings with staff and have offered assistance in multiple ways. They have shown to be dedicated to ongoing partnership between the criminal justice and mental health/substance use systems, and to provide officers with the resources they need to best serve individuals in crisis. Local law enforcement has one of the highest referrals rates to GuideLink Center.

I was hired by AbbeHealth in October 2020 to serve as the executive director of GuideLink Center. After working almost 20 years in community mental health settings, I was thrilled to be chosen to work on a project where innovation and collaboration were at the forefront of the mission. I have had the privilege of working at amazing agencies and participating in treatment that led to successful outcomes. But I have also watched many people fall through the cracks in our system. Those cracks are deep, painful and heartbreaking.

I keep those experiences and those individuals in mind as I strive to make GuideLink Center a person-centered, holistic experience. I, along with all the staff and providers at GuideLink Center, want to offer quality care and compassion for those who are at their most vulnerable. Our ambition is inherent in our daily interactions with those we serve and all we hope to accomplish.

GuideLink Center is not the answer to all the problems in our system, but it is a significant contribution to the solution. We have come a long way since opening our doors in February and we plan to keep pushing forward. The need is great, so our efforts must be greater.

Abbey Ferenzi, LMHC, is executive director of GuideLink Center in Johnson County.