Knoxville Becomes First in State to Open Mental Health Emergency Department

KNOXVILLE, Tennessee (WVLT) – State, city and county leaders all gathered with mental health professionals Monday to address the mental health crisis that has emerged in eastern Tennessee. At a joint mental health workshop, professionals noted that more than 30,000 Knox County residents struggle with mental illness. Most are uninsured substance abuse patients.

Shayla McDaniel, a Knoxville recording artist, was among those who managed her mental health after being diagnosed with depression. She turned to her music to cope, but not everyone has an outlet and some need immediate medical attention.

“I’m fine and I’m doing a lot better and I praise God and I encourage you if you’re not feeling well, that’s okay. Talk to someone,” McDaniel said.

There, Jerry Vagnier, CEO of the Helen Ross McNabb Center, hoped to close the gap by using $4 million in state funding to convert the old St. Mary’s Hospital into a three-year pilot program of emergency mental health care.

“It shouldn’t matter who you are, how old you are, what you look like or what your health status is, you should have easy access to treatment in our community,” Vagnier said. “That would make us very, very unique.”

The idea will be similar to the new Knoxville Center for Behavioral Medicine, removing the burden of emergency care from understaffed hospitals. It would also speed up services for people in crisis.

Vagnier said the facility is expected to be here in the next 18 months.

The state also budgets $560.5 million to invest in mental health care.

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