Innovative Alternative For Those On The Verge Of A Mental Health Crisis

With Mental Health Problems on the Rise

New York has taken a fresh look at mental health and created a community based short stay alternative for people with mental health problems.  With the cost of a hospital stay going up all the time, and probably not truly what is needed, this alternative is a safe place for people to go.  With very little pressure on the guests staying at Parachute NYC, it is a place that people can come and be safe to talk to staff that has also gone through similar problems.


NEW YORK – It is a busy Friday afternoon. Staff members check in guests at the front desk. Other employees lead visitors on tours of the upstairs bedrooms, or field calls from people considering future stays. Aromas of garlic and roasted chicken seep out of the kitchen.

Community Access is not a bed and breakfast, although it feels that way when you walk through its unmarked door off Second Avenue on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Also known as Parachute NYC, this quiet seven-bedroom facility is one of four publicly funded mental health centers in New York City (located in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx) that provide an alternative to hospital stays for people on the verge of a mental health crisis.

Parachute’s respite centers have no medical staff, no medications, no locks or curfews and no mandatory activities. They are secure, welcoming places where people willingly go to escape pressure in their lives and talk to trained “peer professionals” who can relate to what guests are going through because they are recovering from mental illness themselves.


Relatively rare in the U.S., respite centers like this one cost a fraction of the price of a hospital stay, and can be far more effective at helping people avoid a psychotic break, severe mood swing or suicidal episode.

Community-based mental health services are particularly vital at a time when the number of beds in state psychiatric hospitals has declined sharply. Nationwide, psychiatric hospitals shed 3,222 beds from 2009 to 2012 amid recession-related budget cuts, and the number has continued to decline even as the economy has improved. According to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 55 percent of U.S. counties have no practicing behavioral health workers and 77 percent have reported an unmet need.


New York state’s Medicaid agency plans to use a federal waiver to pay for respite services and other community mental health services for 140,000 state residents under a managed care program for people with behavioral health needs. Separately, New York state’s mental health office has invested $60 million since last year on the creation and expansion of community-based services throughout the state, including child and adult respite programs.

“A hospital is the last place you want to be if your life is unraveling,” said Community Access CEO Steve Coe. “They put you in a room, check your blood pressure and walk away and leave you for hours. You need to put your life back together, not be held in a place where you can’t do anything or talk to anyone,” he said.


Averting Crisis

Parachute NYC provides a non-threatening environment where people who are coming undone can take a break from their turbulent lives and think through their problems before they reach a crisis point. Many who shun hospitals and crisis stabilization units will voluntarily seek help at respite centers.

“We’re not against medication,” assistant director Keith Aguiar explained. “If they come in with their own medications and they want to take them, that’s fine. But we do not tell them they have to.”

Many guests have full-time jobs and continue working and seeing friends during their stay. They can come and go any time of day or night. Unlike a hospital, Coe stressed, respite centers allow people to maintain their lives and relationships instead of putting everything on hold. Guests can also continue seeing their regular mental health providers during their stay.

The maximum length of stay at Parachute NYC respite centers is 10 days, soon to be shortened to one week under new Medicaid rules.  But guests can return up to three times per year as needed. They also can visit weekly and monthly as “alumni” and take part in group activities and talk to staff.


A National Need

One in four adults, about 62 million Americans, experiences some form of mental illness during the course of a year. Of those, about 14 million live with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder, according to data from the National Alliance on Mental Illness. More than half of them do not seek treatment, in many cases because they don’t know where to find help.

For those who do seek treatment, the direct medical costs total more than $100 billion per year, according to estimates from the National Institute of Mental Health. Community mental health services such as respite centers may make it possible to reduce those costs and relieve the demand for psychiatric hospital beds, which are in short supply in most communities.

Parachute NYC has so far served about 700 people at its respite centers, 600 through its mobile treatment teams and more than 20,000 through its peer-operated telephone support service. The city’s health department intends to analyze the program to determine whether it has resulted in a reduction in the city’s 100,000 annual psychiatric emergency room visits.

“We don’t perform miracles here,” D’Isselt said. “But we do help people find joy in their lives.” Most guests forge new friendships and leave with a new life plan, she said. “A lot can happen in a week.”


Special Thanks to The Pew Charetable Trusts and Christine Vestal for this Article