A Santa Maria hospital’s crisis stabilization unit has treated almost 600 patients in its first year of operation, emergency medicine Dr. David Ketelaar told the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

The eight-bed CSU provides care for people experiencing a mental health crisis who were brought to Marian Regional Medical Center’s emergency department.

They’re seen by an on-site psychiatrist and specially trained staff in the unit that’s across the street from the emergency room, Ketelaar said.

The CSU can hold people involuntarily for up to 24 hours.

Since opening in September 2022, the CSU has dramatically reduced the number of people on mental health holds in the hospital’s ER, Ketalaar said.

“We still have them, but they’re not as long, not as many,” he said.

In the first half of this year, Marian’s CSU discharged 68% of patients to a lower level of care (community, outpatient treatment), and 32% of patients to a higher level of care, which met contract goals.

“By opening this unit, we’ve been able to move them to a therapeutic environment” and get them help immediately, Marian President/CEO Sue Andersen said.

Other patients on mental crisis holds in emergency rooms would be held for hours or days in a room by themselves, “in some cases with a guard watching you so you don’t harm yourself, and no restroom in that room.”

On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors amended the contract with Marian, which provides $1.6 million a year for the program, to expand the referrals for outpatient services.

Andersen said the CSU costs about $4.5 million per year, and there’s “not a lot of reimbursements or funding,” so the hospital relies on county support, grants and community donations.

She added that San Luis Obispo hospitals are going to start sending some of their emergency room patients in mental health crisis to the Marian CSU and fund that.

Supervisor Bob Nelson called it a great model of a public-private partnership and hoped that other local hospitals may want to replicate the model.

The county’s Behavioral Wellness Department has a Crisis Stabilization Unit in the Santa Barbara area, but the facility was underutilized for years and was closed in May 2022 due to staffing shortages.

The county is looking for a contractor to reopen and operate the CSU as a locked facility, hoping that will increase its availability.

Without it, the only option for people on 5150 mental-health holds waiting for an inpatient treatment bed is the emergency department at local hospitals.