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Increasing Access to Behavioral Healthcare in Rural America

Scott Johnson
Scott Johnson

Program Officer

Q&A with Scott Johnson, Program Officer for the Helmsley Charitable Trust’s Rural Healthcare Program

Behavioral healthcare needs are often unmet in rural areas due to a lack of resources, workforce shortages, stigmas about mental illness, and other factors. The Helmsley Rural Healthcare Program is committed to changing the narrative around mental health in rural America to ensure individuals experiencing a behavioral health crisis can receive specialized care in a timely manner. As part of this work, Helmsley provided $4 million in funding to support the first 36 months of operations for Pivot Point, a new psychiatric crisis stabilization unit in Rapid City, South Dakota.

Scott Johnson, Program Officer for the Helmsley Charitable Trust’s Rural Healthcare Program, discusses Pivot Point and the importance of providing tailored behavioral healthcare services in rural America.

Tell us about the services provided at Pivot Point.

Pivot Point is a 16-bed crisis stabilization unit in Pennington County, South Dakota, that provides 24/7 access to behavioral healthcare and trained professionals. As the first of its kind in the state, this facility is filling a critical gap in behavioral healthcare resources and was created to provide specialized care to address behavioral health crises and support addiction recovery. Pivot Point is initially tasked with serving residents of 10 counties in western South Dakota. As America’s mental health crisis continues to impact millions each year, especially in rural areas where access to resources is limited, we knew that there was a dire need for a facility dedicated solely to behavioral health.

How does the care at Pivot Point differ from a traditional hospital?

The goal of facilities like Pivot Point is to provide a level of care close to home outside of the traditional emergency room or hospital setting that supports recovery efforts and ultimately reduces readmission rates. The unit will accept walk-ins and patients who are brought in by EMS and features an assessment center, 16-bed unit, on-site prescription services, and stabilizing treatments to help patients return to their communities. Having all of these services in one space, away from the chaos of a crowded emergency room, is immensely helpful for someone experiencing a behavioral health crisis.

Why are facilities that are specifically designed for behavioral healthcare so important, especially in rural America?

Before Pivot Point, individuals experiencing a behavioral health crisis would be transported to a facility that was hours away, while others were waiting for days and even weeks at a time for an open bed in the hospital. Unfortunately, law enforcement would sometimes be brought in and, in severe cases, the patient would end up in jail to keep themselves and the public safe. It became apparent that there needed to be another way to address the critical needs of these patients, especially individuals with severe mental health issues who required advanced care. Pivot Point is so crucial for the health and well-being of patients and their communities and, at the same time, takes the pressure off of hospitals, law enforcement, and court systems.

Does Helmsley plan to fund similar initiatives in South Dakota and other parts of the country?

Pivot Point is one of many projects our Rural Healthcare Program team has been working on relating to behavioral healthcare. Mental health illnesses are one of the only medical conditions that can lead to someone being incarcerated against their will. Facilities like Pivot Point can prevent this from happening. Our work with Pivot Point is part of our vision to expand access to psychiatric care across the rural Midwest. For example, the Helmsley Behavioral Health Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota opened in 2022 and is focused on treating psychiatric needs among children, youth, and adults. Projects like these require collaboration with hospitals, government, law enforcement, and other agencies, and we look forward to opening facilities in other states to ensure every resident has access to specialized behavioral healthcare.