Guest Post: WellStone Emergency Services Director of Development, Karen Petersen, CFRE

It’s about time: “ER” for mental healthcare is finally coming to Madison County

You go to the emergency department for a broken bone or heart attack. But where can you and your loved ones go for emergencies involving mental health? For years, there were only two choices in Madison County: The ER or jail. Fortunately, a third, more effective and appropriate option is coming to the Rocket City.  

WellStone, Inc., a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, is building North Alabama’s first crisis intervention center. The 25,000 sq. ft. facility, which will be operated by WellStone Emergency Services, or WES, is scheduled to be completed in June. It’s on WellStone’s main campus on the Parkway near Torch’s Freedom Center. Experts say the 24/7 stand-alone psychiatric center will be a game-changer for mental healthcare in the Rocket City. The timing couldn’t be better.

After all, more people than ever are affected by mental illness and substance abuse. Fallout from COVID-related conditions have been detrimental to our collective mental health. It’s getting better, but statistics show that at one point, more than 40 percent of American adults reported symptoms consistent with anxiety or depression. Additionally, reports of substance abuse spiked, and overdose deaths surged to more than 100,000 in 2021.

Since the pandemic began, we, as a society, have also been hearing more about mental health crises.  A mental health crisis is defined as “A situation in which a person’s behavior puts them at risk of hurting themselves or others and/or prevents them from being able to care for themselves or function effectively in the community.” A mental health crisis could involve several situations, including (but not limited to) suicidal ideation, psychotic episodes or substance abuse.

When WES opens its new facility, those in crisis will finally receive the compassionate mental healthcare they need with the dignity they deserve. When they leave, it won’t be the end, but the beginning, of their recovery journeys. Some will be referred to other programs and services within WellStone, such as therapy, medical regimens, group homes, support groups or Intensive Outpatient (IOP) treatment for alcohol or drug addiction, clinically referred to as substance use disorder (SUD). We also work with community partners, linking clients to other community agencies and organizations that can assist with sustained recovery plans.

WES won’t just change the level of care for clients in crisis. Currently operating in a limited capacity at a temporary location, WES is already making a difference for law enforcement. When police are called to a mental health crisis, they typically spend hours with that individual, admitting them to the hospital or booking them in jail. Thanks to its partnership with WellStone, officers can bring a person in crisis to WES and be back patrolling our street in about 15 minutes.

“If it is a mental health crisis, there should be a mental health response,” said Huntsville Police Chief Mark McMurray. “By building a relationship with WellStone and our other community partners, we have been able to decrease the number of repeat encounters with law enforcement for people experiencing a mental health crisis. This partnership has not only served to increase safety for these individuals and our officers but has diverted those in need of appropriate behavioral health services away from the criminal justice system.”

The diversion center will also alleviate the burden of ER staff. An estimated 8,000 people wind up at Huntsville Hospital every year due to mental health crises. Unless there is an accompanying physical emergency, mental healthcare clients will go to WES, not the ER.

This facility has been in the works for several years, after the Alabama Department of Mental Health announced the state had a significant gap in its continuum of care. Those in crisis were slipping through the cracks.

In October 2020, Governor Kay Ivey announced that WellStone would be one of three agencies to operate mental healthcare crisis centers in Alabama. The state awarded WellStone $3m for construction of the new facility. Madison City, Madison County and Huntsville are generously contributing as well. Even so, WellStone remains $5m short of the $10m costs associated with this enormous construction project.

That’s why WellStone is launching a capital campaign and inviting North Alabamians to invest in this initiative. Community members are invited to “Be the Rock,” and help “build a foundation of community, compassion and connection for those in mental health crisis.”

As we roll out this campaign and prepare to open WES’s new facility, we hope people will open their minds to what it means to be in a mental health crisis. Additionally, we hope they also open their hearts, extending kindness to those whose pain, though harder to recognize and even comprehend, is often just as excruciating. Sometimes even more so.

If you are interested in learning more about WES or WellStone’s other mental health programs and services, please visit our website. For information about our “Be the Rock” campaign, including ways to support, click here or contact Karen Petersen at You can also like stay updated by liking WellStone’s Facebook page.