Kern officials unveil first-of-a-kind psychiatric facilities

There is a saying among architects, or at least something to the effect, that with each design there is a darling in mind: an angle, a room, a feature. For Robin Taylor, that darling is the day room.

Boasting a high, cathedral-like ceiling, an abundance of shearless windows and perforated walls, there’s nary a space for shadows to fester. Instead, natural light is invited inside in so many ways, an intentional part of the design Taylor said was built upon the input of those who would stay here: the mentally ill.

“It’s just a space that draws you out,” Taylor said.

Leaders and laymen from across the region gathered Wednesday to celebrate the unveiling of two built-from-scratch psychiatric facilities in Kern County.

The two east Bakersfield facilities will together house up to 32 people, divided between adults and children ages 5-17. Those clients, who will come involuntarily or at the referral of staff at the Mary K. Shell Mental Health Center, will receive two weeks to a month, on average, of intensive therapy.

Wednesday’s commencement underscores the challenges faced by local governments to build mental health facilities while keeping pace with fast-rising costs of psychiatric care. The facilities, measuring about 15,000 square feet each, cost a total $25 million to construct and another $14.9 million annually to operate. They also took a decade of planning, said former Kern Behavioral Health and Recovery Services Director Stacey Kuwahara, and spanned the tenure of three county behavioral health directors.

“We have continued to see an increased need for inpatient psychiatric care in our community and throughout California,” said Alison Burrowes, the current Kern BHRS director.

With a planned opening in mid-June, the facilities will be managed by Alameda-based Telecare Corp. and Central Star.

Between voter’s passage of Proposition 1 in the March 5 primary and the approved expansion of the conservatorship law through Senate Bill 43, county mental health officials are quickly overhauling their systems to accept a large number of people, under a funding platform starkly different from before.

Early estimates show those who would qualify for an involuntary hold in Kern would increase “tenfold,” to possibly include more than a third of the county’s homeless population. Since the start of the year, Burrowes said, her department has met with all involved parties to prepare a continuum of care model for the at least 1,600 people they expect to admit over the coming years.

Burrowes warned city officials in a presentation this past December that implementation could cost upward of $50 million and another $25 million each year to operate.

On the bright side, Taylor said that future facilities should be easier to build, state grant applications notwithstanding. She and her team of architects are already through the preliminary design of a 16-bed youth stabilization building, set to be built by 2026 next to the youth facility with $17 million in state grant money already approved.

The difficulty in this building came with its design, and the specific parts needed — from the door handles to the hinges — to meet state requirements for a locked facility.

To her knowledge, these buildings are a first in Kern County; all of their other inpatient wards are former hospitals, retrofitted into compliance.

“It’s always been, here’s a building,” Taylor said. “Let’s retrofit it or fix it to make it what you need.”

A tour inside showcases the difference: Earth tone furniture, paintings and murals adorn the walls. It’s a far cry from the white-walled wards of old.

Inside the youth facility, a swing space separates a living space — along with a common area and playground — for kids ages 12 and under. It’s a state requirement, Taylor said, as kids that infantile — some enter as young as 6 years old — need a separate space for healing.

“A danger to themselves, suicidal thoughts,” Taylor said. “So when you get young kids that are really in need of treatment, you want a space that is welcoming, engaging and works for them.”