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Exceeding expectations

Humboldt County Memorial Hospital opens mental health center

-Messenger file photo by Kelby Wingert
The Humboldt County Memorial Hospital’s new Mental Health and Wellness Center is ready to welcome patients and held an open house on April 14, 2023. Pictured from left are: HCMH Chief Nursing Officer Victor Byrocft, HCMH Chief Executive Officer Michelle Sleiter, therapist Nolan Vitzthum, therapist Laurie Dobrinich, therapist Jessica Lantz and therapist Erin Fiala.

HUMBOLDT — In recent years, Humboldt County Memorial Hospital has prioritized mental health and wellness services and to meet the needs of its community, the hospital built a new 3,000-square-foot addition to serve as the new home for these services.

Construction on the $1.7 million HCMH Mental Health and Wellness Center broke ground on Sept. 2, 2022, and on April 14, 2023, the hospital hosted a ribbon cutting and open house to mark its completion.

“This might have exceeded my expectations,” said HCMH Chief Executive Officer Michelle Sleiter. “As I look at the finished product with the furniture in it, it’s really creating a home-like, comfortable, calming environment for the individuals who utilize this service.”

With four mental health therapy and counseling providers, the hospital sees about 100 patients each week, Sleiter said. Currently, there are also about 50 patients on the waiting list to be seen.

“Obviously, if a patient’s in crisis, we’ll squeeze them in and we make it happen,” she said.

-Messenger file photo by Kelby Wingert
The new Mental Health and Wellness Center at Humboldt County Memorial Hospital features a family therapy room.

She added that it’s hard on the current providers to know there are so many patients who still need help.

Sleiter believes that the new space, which was specifically designed to house a mental health center, will help her with recruiting more providers to be able to help more patients.

Overall, the hospital’s goal was to create a warm and welcoming space for its mental health patients.

“We want people to be able to come into it and feel like they can let their guard down and know they’re safe in this space,” said Chief Nursing Officer Victor Bycroft.

The addition was also designed to fit in seamlessly to the rest of the hospital that surrounds it, Bycroft said.

-Messenger file photo by Kelby Wingert
Humboldt County Memorial Hospital child therapist Nolan Vitzthum was able to design a play therapy room in the new Mental Health and Wellness Center.

“It blends in, so it really looks like this was always here,” he said.

When the hospital’s Therapy and Counseling center was established in July 2019 with the hiring of one full-time licensed mental health counselor, the hospital just found existing space within the hospital campus to provide the service.

In April 2020, space was added to accommodate an additional provider by taking square footage from the ER and infusion waiting room. However, a year later the hospital found that the space was once again needed by the ER and infusion waiting room, Sleiter told The Messenger in December 2021.

The facility is all-new construction that now covers where a grassy hill once sat between the surgical center and Springvale Assisted Living. The construction wrapped up about two weeks ago, Bycroft said.

The four current mental health providers in the office — Nolan Vitzthum, Erin Fiala, Jessica Lantz and Laurie Dobrinich — officially moved into the new space on Thursday.

For Vitzthum, the crown jewel of the project is the new play therapy room.

“Play therapy is evidence-based, which means it has a lot of research behind it,” she said. Children ages 3 through adolescence use play therapy to express abstract thoughts and feelings.

“In play therapy, play is the language and the toys are their words,” Vitzthum said. “And it’s my job as the play therapist to really pick up on feelings, metaphors, symbolism and really reflect that back to the kid or to help them process through everything.”

Vitzthum said she modeled her play therapy room after spaces at the University of Northern Texas, which is a leading researcher for play therapy. The play therapy room in the former site for the counseling center wasn’t even half the size of the new one, she added.

The play therapy room also has a camera that is connected to a closed-circuit screen in Vitzthum’s office so she can observe patients interacting with their parents without distracting the child with her presence.

One of the top features Sleiter wanted in the new space was sound-proofing — patients want assurance that when they’re talking to their therapist, someone standing outside the door can’t eavesdrop.

The space was built with sound baffling in the walls, as well as a “white noise” audio system throughout the offices and hallways. The doors to all the rooms are also sealed to shut out noise.

“Privacy is huge,” Bycroft said.

Another privacy feature that the Mental Health and Wellness Center has is a private exit so patients don’t have to walk through the waiting room to leave after their therapy appointment.

“Counseling absolutely can be very emotional and they don’t want to walk back by everybody else,” Bycroft said.

Other new rooms in the space include a family counseling room and a telehealth room.

Though the new center just opened, Sleiter is already looking at expanding — she’s looking to hire at least one more counseling provider, as well as a nurse practitioner to work alongside the counselors to manage medication for patients. Because of the size of the staff, Bycroft added, they also plan to hire an office manager.

If the hospital eventually sees the need for more mental health providers and needs the space, there is space to build onto the new addition and add another 2,000 square feet, Sleiter said.

The facility was designed by Atura Architecture of Clear Lake, and was built by Sande Construction & Supply Co., of Humboldt. The project was funded through grants, support from the Humboldt County Memorial Hospital Foundation and an interest-free loan from Corn Belt Power Cooperative.

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