Tombigbee Outreach offers needed counseling, mental health services in west Alabama

Although it’s been open just over a year, Tombigbee Outreach Adult Behavioral Health Services already has gone through reorganization because of the demand for its programs.

Director Jeri Vaughan and her entire staff have been with the program since it began in April 2014. Within a week the first patients were accepted, and at the end of the first month there were 10 people being served. Vaughan said Tombigbee Outreach has worked with some 150 clients since opening.

“We have yet to have a day without a patient,” she said.

The outreach services began as the Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP) sponsored by Bryan W. Whitfield Memorial Hospital. The program is a short-term outpatient service for adults 18 and older who have acute mental health issues that interfere with their ability to function on a day-to-day basis.

Patients are required to attend five days a week for six hours each day. It is for those with psychiatric illnesses and/or substance abuse, said Vaughan.

She called PHP a “bridge program” for psychiatric therapy, similar to a swing bed unit in the hospital for people undergoing physical therapy.

PHP continues to be part of Tombigbee Outreach, but Vaughan said the staff also conducts an Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP), allowing patients to maintain their daily routines and live at home.

A third component of the outreach is individual counseling both to private clients and as part of the behavioral health services. Kate Crawford, one of two counselors, offers grief and marriage counseling as well as anger management on an individual basis.

Crystal Crawford, the second counselor on staff, and Tammy Neal, case manager, said they each shared their thoughts in setting up the unit. Working closely together, the staff uses an interdisciplinary approach to patient care.

Also on the staff is Katie Barley, who, like Vaughan, is a Registered Nurse, and Demetric Edwards. Edwards transports the patients, helps with the maintenance and, as he put it, “I try to make everyone happy.”

“Our job is to keep people out of the hospital,” said Vaughan. Programs like Tombigbee Outreach benefit taxpayers who don’t have to underwrite the cost of housing and caring for patients.

The outreach program has “been a good opportunity in this area,” said Katie Crawford. There are not many treatment options in west Alabama, she said. The services provided in Demopolis offer a good way for patients to transition to the mainstream.

Crawford, who moved into mental health from substance abuse counseling, said, “The more I do it, the more I like it.”

Each patient admitted to the program is evaluated by one of two staff psychiatrists, Dr. John Dorsey or Dr. Demel Coleman of Vance. With input from the outreach counselors, a course of treatment is determined. The doctors meet on a regular basis with every client and consults with the staff to alter treatment as needed.

“We don’t just deal with the patients while they’re here,” said Vaughan. They have many issues to deal with, including homelessness or lack of any family support.

Most of the patients are referred by psychiatric hospitals or detox units, she said. Some end up in jail not because they have committed any crime but because their behavior causes concern.

The majority of the patients seen can live independent lives with the right medication and regular check-ups to make sure the treatments are controlling their symptoms.

“We have multiple success stories,” Vaughan said. She told of one 47-year-old woman for the first time in her life is able to support herself. She attends church and has begun singing in the choir.

The woman lives in one of two houses in Demopolis that provide a home for those patients who have none. The supervised residences can shelter six women in one home and eight men in the other.

One of the components of the therapy is to become part of the community. To help with that, the group often goes on field trips, especially to Horseshoe Farms in Greensboro, a project begun by Dr. Dorsey.

Patients help fix meals and deliver them and in other ways learn to contribute.

“Giving back is a quality we try to instill,” said Vaughan. Vaughan is always looking for opportunities for her clients to volunteer and makes sure each patient is capable and ready to take part in activities around the city.

Gaining acceptance from the community is another hurdle. “Mental illness is this huge stigma,” said Katie Crawford.

Tombigbee Outreach is housed in the former Holifield Clinic on Cedar Street adjacent to the hospital. Some of the walls between examining rooms have been removed to provide larger spaces for group activities. Vaughan admits with a laugh that she and her staff scrounged through all the discards at the hospital to find furnishings.

About the only new items purchased were chairs and dining tables. Even the piano, badly in need of tuning, was donated.

Tombigbee Outreach is a Medicare-based program, and private insurance policies may cover some of the cost, said Vaughan.

Medicaid does not pay for the services, but the hospital can work with each patient to help with expenses.