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Before the pandemic, mental health issues were already on the rise. The fallout from COVID-19 accelerated and magnified the issues, especially among children.

As it stands now, people who experience a mental health crisis often show up to a hospital emergency room where they have to wait for hours — sometimes days — to be transferred to a behavioral clinic with mental health experts.

Riverside Health System is trying to cut out the middleman by opening a dedicated psychiatric emergency department.

Stacey Johnson is the president of Riverside’s Behavioral Health Center, where the new emergency room will be hosted. She said as demand has gone up, it takes longer to get care to those in need.

"The goal is arrival and getting that specialized treatment right away, as opposed to it happening 24 hours later, like it can really occur now, "Johnson said. "It's really having those mental health experts available to to help triage these patients."

Riverside broke ground on the new facility on Tuesday afternoon. It'll be the first standalone psychiatric emergency department in the region when construction wraps up late in 2023.

Riverside’s emergency department will have individual rooms for intake and treatment. It will also include dedicated calming areas for patients in crisis.

Officials said the new department would give a dedicated destination for those in crisis and ease pressure on emergency rooms at hospitals across the Peninsula.

Another element it can alleviate: the time-sink for law enforcement.

Newport News Sheriff Gabe Morgan, who also serves as the chair of Riverside’s Board of Directors, noted that when a police officer escorts someone in crisis to a hospital, that officer has to stay with that patient throughout the process. 

Once they find a bed at a behavioral health facility, the officer is typically tasked with transporting the patient there, which can sometimes be located hours away.

Virginia Beach police, for instance, spent more than 18,000 hours dealing with mental health calls last year.

“Eastern State was a sprawling campus. You go up there now and it's a ghost town and you say, ‘What happened? Where did all the patients go?’” Morgan said during the groundbreaking ceremony. “Well, I can tell you as sheriff, it became easier to lock someone up than to get them to services. So when I see a facility like this and the staff, I'm encouraged because what I know is that this is needed.”

Law enforcement all over Virginia have complained about the day-to-day staffing issues this creates.

Morgan said this new facility could serve as an example for hospital systems around the state.