Like many families, Betsy and Bill Blue became frustrated after trying to find help for a loved one who had a mental health crisis in 2011. Charlotte residents for 30 years, they were surprised by the gap in therapy and began speaking with Charlotte leaders about how to change that.
After visiting Skyland Trail in Atlanta, the Blues were so impressed that, in January 2014, they created a nonprofit foundation and began raising money to build a similar residential psychiatric care center in Charlotte.
Their HopeWay Foundation will hold a ceremony Thursday to mark the beginning of renovations to buildings on a 12-acre campus that was previously home to Amethyst, a substance abuse treatment center in southeast Charlotte.
Scheduled to open in summer 2016, HopeWay will provide residential and day treatment for adults with mental illness. It will have rooms for 36 residential clients and space for 50 additional day clients.
Blue, a retired investment banker with Wells Fargo, said his family found a “striking void” in the availability of comprehensive day treatment after their loved one got out of the hospital.
“It’s important to help the individual go all the way back to independent living, as opposed to dropping people at the curb,” Blue said.
HopeWay will be “patching a big hole in that continuum” of care for adults with mental illness, said Dr. John Santopietro, chief clinical officer for behavioral health services at Carolinas HealthCare System, which operates two psychiatric hospitals in Mecklenburg County.
Santopietro compared the care to be offered at HopeWay to rehabilitation that patients get after open heart surgery or joint replacements. “Rehab is a part of so many of our treatments, but it’s a glaring hole in our (behavioral health) system nationwide,” he said.
A typical hospital stay for a patient with clinical depression might be seven to 10 days, but “the episode’s not over” when the patient is discharged, Santopietro said. “Your brain has to heal. So do your relationships (and) … your capacity to live and function and work.”
He added: “My hope would be that across the country, more people would do what the Blues are doing. We definitely need partners. No one provider can meet all the needs.”
In March 2015, the HopeWay Foundation purchased the former Amethyst site, 12 acres on Sharon Road West. The campus includes a 52,675-square-foot building with kitchen and dining hall, classrooms, offices and a library.
Renovations are also planned for a 13,800-square-foot gym and two single-family houses for transitional living. The campus will also include walking trails, a meditation pavilion and a greenhouse.
HopeWay’s advisory board includes some of Charlotte’s leading family names – including Sally and Russell Robinson, Johnny Belk and Hugh McColl III. The organization expects to announce its first chief executive officer next month. The staff will include three psychiatrists and 20 therapists.
Officials at both Carolinas HealthCare and Novant Health, Charlotte’s two hospital systems, have provided guidance and support. Both systems are represented on HopeWay’s medical advisory board, including Santopietro from Carolinas HealthCare and his counterpart, Dr. Ken Dunham, from Novant Health.
The total project cost is more than $33 million, Blue said. HopeWay has borrowed $7.6 million through the sale of tax-exempt bonds and has raised about 90 percent of its goal of $25.4 million in donations.
That includes $5 million to create an endowment for financial aid. Blue said HopeWay intends to budget $750,000 per year to help cover the cost of care for needy clients.
At HopeWay, he said a majority of the cost of day treatment will be covered by insurance. For residential treatment, “it’s more of a 50-50 proposition,” depending on the client’s health status and insurance plan.
“We chose this model so we could make it more accessible for people,” Blue said.
In addition to treating patients who have been discharged from the hospital, HopeWay also will accept clients who need residential care to prevent a crisis.
Beth Purdy, whose husband, Steve, is on the foundation’s board, believes a place like HopeWay would have helped in her recovery. Now 47, Purdy said she had her first debilitating episode of “major depression” when she was 21, a rising senior at UNC-Chapel Hill. At the time, she said she and her parents, living in Raleigh, “had no idea what was going on” and had difficulty finding a psychiatrist.
Purdy, a high achiever in school, said she “didn’t look the part” of someone with depression, and she saw the diagnosis as a “character flaw” and a “weakness.” When she got married at 25, she was at first afraid to tell her husband. “There was that much of a stigma in the world I lived in,” she said.
At 31, living in Charlotte with her husband and 6-month-old twin sons, Purdy had another life-threatening bout with depression. “All I could see was nothing and blankness,” she said. She remembers thinking that her sons’ lives would “be a lot better without me.”
She didn’t act on those suicidal thoughts, and, with her husband’s help, she found care. But it took another five years to get the proper diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Today with medications and therapy, she understands her illness better and knows she can lead a full and healthy life.
A place like HopeWay would have allowed her to “catch my breath and learn what I was dealing with,” she said. “My husband and I wouldn’t have been in the dark.”
For more information:
▪ HopeWay Foundation: www.hopewayfoundation.org.
Facts about mental illness:
▪ More than 230,000 adults suffering from serious mental illness live within a 100-mile radius of Charlotte.
▪ In 2014, there were 50,000 discharges of patients with psychiatric diagnoses from hospitals within a 100-mile radius of Charlotte.
▪ The percentage of need met by psychiatrists in Mecklenburg County was 39 percent in 2012 compared with 96 percent in Wake County.
Sources: National Institute of Mental Health; U.S. Census; Truven Health Analytics; Sheps Center for Health Services Research at UNC-Chapel Hill.