Mercy-Unity Hospital is Improving Mental Health Care
By Rachel L. H. Bartling, AIA


Kathy Schroeder, Allina Mercy Unity Mental Health Center Director, showing community members some features of the new center. (Photo Credit: Allina Health)

Mental health treatment represents one of the greatest dilemmas in our nation’s healthcare systems. It begins with a shortage of inpatient rooms and caregivers.  By some estimates there is a shortage of 125,000 beds nationwide but the problem starts with an estimated shortage of 46,000 psychiatrists. It may take three months or more to make an appointment.  Patients conditions escalate until they are in crisis, and then show up in the Emergency Department (ED) where a patient may be boarded for several days because there are no inpatient mental health beds available. The dilemma continues with reimbursables for treatment, the rising opioid crisis, and observatory care after discharge.

With a lack of inpatient beds, it is little wonder that one out of every eight cases for mental illness is brought to an ED for care. Unfortunately, EDs are not the place for most of these patients. From the frenetic atmosphere endemic to ED environments to proper staffing and rooms ill-equipped for patients who may sit in the ED for days waiting for an available inpatient bed, which itself, may be hours away from family and friends. Minnesota is not immune to this issue, despite its high ranking by Mental Health America for access to care and lower prevalence of mental illness. The lack of beds has created many struggles for patients, families, care providers, and healthcare systems as a whole.

Minneapolis- based Allina Health is among many healthcare systems trying to navigate the mental health epidemic. In 2017, Allina Health Mercy-Unity Hospital opened a new $8.2 Million Mental Health Center to begin to improve on outcomes. While services were being offered at both Unity and Mercy campuses, Allina determined that it would be in patients, and staffs, best interest to consolidate and focus on the highest level of care. “By consolidating mental health services in one location we can enhance these programs to improve access and help patients maintain and improve their health,” said Joe Clubb, Vice President of Operations for Allina Health mental health and addiction services. “Bringing the services together on the Unity campus gave us more space and opportunity to meet our patients’ needs.” Allina partnered with BWBR and Mortenson to focus on making strides to improve the care provisions. The project focused on three areas including a new mental health clinic with some ability to make same day or next day appointments, renovation of the Emergency Department to create a 20-bed mental health pod, and a 40-bed inpatient mental health unit.

All parties involved understood the importance of this project and the impact on our community. Measures were taken to create an environment that was better for both staff and patients. BWBR led focus groups to discuss their vision for the mental health service line and to gather input on what worked well, and what needed improvement in the current condition. The Allina Leadership team determined guiding principles that were followed to create the final design. Those Guiding Principles focused on creating a Center of Excellence for Mental Health, creating a healing environment, a patient- and family-focused partnership, safety for all, as well as being good stewards of the available resources. Staff was involved in design meetings from day one to make sure they were engaged and on-board with the decisions. Patients’ input also was important in driving the best outcome of the new center. “This has to go beyond just designing for safety,” says Melanie Baumhover, Principal at BWBR and Project Manager on the facility.

“The needs of these patients are complex – social and emotional as well as mental. Environments that help patients feel dignified, hopeful, and safe takes a world in which patients feel out of control and brings more sense to the patient’s surroundings.”

The outcomes of the new center were discussed in an interview with the Mercy-Unity Mental Health Center leaders, Brenda Verbick, Kathy Schroeder, and Lynette Sickler. According to the women, the new space has been such a positive change for the patients and staff. First and foremost, the unit now has all private rooms with multi-colored LED light fixtures for mood/comfort control, music that can be controlled by the patient, and soft removable bathroom doors to protect staff and patients. Kathy Schroeder stated that the private patient room design was “a game changer for patient comfort and safety.”  The new space also has an entry that is bright and inviting with security to provide a layer of safety for both staff and patients. Medication distribution is safer, having a window pass-thru to protect the caregiver.  Other features include the installation of new windows, larger than were available at the previous unit, to bring in natural light, and a recreation room for exercise and fun! The Emergency Department was also renovated to provide for a safer and more patient-friendly intake for mental health patients arriving for emergency care. 

Allettie Mueller, Program Specialist at the Mercy Unity Mental Health Center walks through the new activity space with Allina CEO Penny Wheeler. (Photo Credit: Allina Health)

Overall, the outcome of the project was very positive. Catie Kilpo, Mortenson Project Engineer states that “being part of designing and building this Inpatient Mental Health Center was one of the most emotionally charged experiences I have been fortunate enough to be a part of creating. It’s humbling to work with extraordinary caretakers and to form relationships that drive me to do my best and be part of something so impactful for our community.” Most importantly, the staff are extremely happy to be working in such a wonderful calming environment and most excited by the outcomes that are leading to dramatically improved patient satisfaction surveys.  While there is still a long road ahead to create sufficient mental health care in this country for the one-in-five adults who experience mental illness, Allina Health Unity-Mercy Hospital Mental Health Center marks great progress for our community. Who’s next? Let’s help our communities get the best care together!