In late 2018, East Baton Rouge Parish voters approved a tax increase to pay for the Bridge Center for Hope — a new way of stopping overdoses, suicides and other mental health struggles that were then slowly but steadily rising.

In 2020, those problems exploded.

Baton Rouge shattered the record for overdose deaths last year, and 2021 threatens to produce even more. The isolating coronavirus pandemic has also  caused a steep increase in mental health problems across the country, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

So, when the Bridge Center opened its doors Thursday, its mission was more urgent than ever.

"Its opening couldn't come quick enough," said East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore. "We sure hope this place saves lives."

Moore was one of several law enforcement officials who two years ago successfully lobbied parish voters to approve the 10-year, 1.5-mill property tax to fund the Bridge Center. They argued the facility was a much-needed alternative to the emergency room or jail, where law enforcement typically takes those in similar crises.

The 24,000-square-foot facility, across from Baton Rouge General Mid City, employs a "no wrong door" approach, meaning anyone struggling with addiction or in need of psychiatric care is welcome — whether they walk in off Florida Boulevard, are escorted by a loved one, or transported by first responders or law enforcement. 

The newly opened facility, 3455 Florida Blvd., features a designated side entrance with a "law enforcement" sign and doorbell for police officers and emergency medical services to quickly and efficiently drop-off patients. The Bridge Center aims for a hand-off that lasts no longer than 5 minutes. 

Joy Brunson Nsubuga, an official with RI International, the contractor running the site, said they've put very few restrictions on the circumstances in which law enforcement can drop off patients at the Bridge Center, only requiring that they be aged 18 or older and that they're not experiencing a medical emergency. 

"We don't want them to have to make a lot of triage decisions in the field," Nsubuga said of law enforcement officials. "If they're encountering anyone in a mental health or substance abuse crisis, we're telling them to bring them directly to us."

Top stories in Baton Rouge in your inbox

Twice daily we'll send you the day's biggest headlines. Sign up today.

Cpl. L’Jean McKneely, a BRPD spokesperson, said the city's police officers will make those determinations "on a case-by-case basis," adding that they can't "force anybody to go" to the Bridge Center — "they have to want to go."

A spokesperson for the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff's Office said that, at the moment, they're leaving those decisions to either the coroner — who can order someone into protective custody — or the medical staff on-hand during the pre-booking process at the East Baton Rouge Parish Prison. 

"For our deputies to make those kind of determinations would require some training," said the sheriff's spokesperson Casey Rayborn Hicks. 

At some point, the Bridge Center will employ a two-person mobile response team, made up of a clinician and social worker, which will be tied into the parish's 911 system and can be dispatched on nonemergency calls related to substance abuse or mental health issues. 

"We’re the experts in behavioral health care, and we want to be that resource for first responders so they’re able to do what they’re an expert in, which is protecting the community," Nsubuga said. 

The Bridge Center is set up to serve as a short-term respite for those experiencing an urgent behavioral health episode. The first stop for any patient will be the crisis stabilization unit, an open space featuring 16 recliners where clinicians will triage and treat patients in their first 23 hours on-site.

About 30% of patients may require more time to stabilize and will be transferred to either a detox or psychiatric unit for a few more days, depending on their needs. Both units include 16 beds and round-the-clock care. 

On arrival, patients will immediately be paired with a care management team tasked with planning their discharge. That team will remain linked with patients for up to 30 days after their stay, providing a "warm hand-off" as patients navigate doctor appointments and other services.

The goal eventually is to connect guests with longer-term health care, not just help with an immediate crisis. The site was originally scheduled to open in December but faced delays in receiving permits from the state Health Department.


Email Blake Paterson at bpaterson@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter @blakepater