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Southwestern Mental Health Center Executive Director Scott Johnson stands inside the child's play room of SWMHC's new out-patient services and office building in downtown Worthington. (JULIE BUNTJER/DAILY GLOBE)

Southwest Mental Health Center completes move downtown

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WORTHINGTON -- After years of waiting and three days of moving, the staff of Southwestern Mental Health Center in Worthington continues to settle into its new offices downtown following a July 22 opening.

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Constructed on the former Central School property across from the Nobles County Library, the offices complete the mental health campus envisioned by SWMHC Executive Director Scott Johnson. It shares a city block with the Unity House, an inpatient treatment center for the mentally ill, that was completed in December 2010.

The new building brings all the SWMHC staff in Worthington under one roof. Previously, the center leased space in three different buildings to accommodate the need for outpatient services. Johnson said the move increased the agency's total space from 8,400 to 13,000 square feet.

That extra space will help to serve a continually expanding client base.

"We'll probably do more than 9,000 outpatient visits in this building per year," Johnson said, adding that the offices average more than 40 visits per day. "We just couldn't accommodate that in the other buildings."

In addition to outpatient services in the new facility, Johnson said community-based workers make another 18,000 visits per year to individuals and families in Nobles County and the surrounding area.

The new building is anticipated to meet the needs of the SWMHC for years to come. With expanded meeting space, Johnson said there are plans to offer more self-help programs and support groups. Already, the new building has been chosen to host the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Support Group.

"We envision being able to do more public education, more awareness kinds of things, more prevention activities -- which, going forward, is where we need to be," Johnson said. "We're just going to be much more visible."

Therapy groups are also utilizing the meeting space, and Johnson said doctors have more space to conduct family meetings, consult with other agencies and perform staff training, meetings and record reviews.

Approximately 40 full- and part-time staffers are based in the new building, including 15 Southwinds ACT/Intensive family-based team members who serve the five-county area. In addition, there are two employees who work with supportive housing for individuals in the region who have either been or are homeless. The remainder are physicians, psychologists, therapists, local community-based workers and support staff.

Johnson said four new staff members have been hired in recent months in anticipation of the move, and there's capacity to add more staff as needed.

"We didn't have enough space for all of our staff (before)," he explained. "We did have folks working out of their cars and out of closets. We had people doubled, tripled and quadrupled in conference rooms. Our play therapy room was literally in a hallway. Now, we have a designated and custom-designed area for working with younger children and their families."

This month, a child psychiatrist will move her base of operations to the SWMHC office in Worthington, where she'd already been spending a majority of her time.

"She currently travels to all five counties, and she's cutting down on her travel," Johnson said, adding that the psychiatrist will do more telepsychiatry.

With outreach provided to nearly 10 school districts in the area for school-based mental health services, Johnson also sees the potential for expansion there.

"It's a relatively new concept for serving children with mental health needs," he said, adding that mental health professionals are given space in the school and access to students, teachers and parents. "It's proving to be a much more effective and efficient way of serving children with mental health problems."

Efficiencies are also part of the reason the SWMHC plans to eventually integrate with primary care physicians to "deliver better coordinated and more ... effective care to folks that have both mental health and medical concerns," Johnson said. "That's somewhere we need to be headed and couldn't have accomplished in our old (building) layout."

With soundproofing technology used throughout the building, Johnson said patients can be assured of confidentiality. It's just one of many features added to the building.

"This is an energy-efficient, nearly green building," he said, adding that security features are in place and the phone and computer networks have been upgraded in the move.

"We're going to realize big savings," Johnson said of having one office facility. "By being adjacent to Unity House, we can share staff. Unity House residents have access to a whole variety of services just by walking across the parking lot. That increases our efficiency and creative things that we can do.

"We think we've just taken an enormous step forward for the health and well-being of Worthington and the surrounding area. We couldn't be more pleased. It's a great building, it's going to serve us well, it's going to make us better -- more effective, more efficient."

SWMHC has offices in each of its five member counties -- in the communities of Luverne, Pipestone, Windom, Jackson and Worthington -- although approximately 40 percent of the caseload is in Nobles County.

"It does kind of mirror the population, and Nobles has at least one-third of the area population," Johnson said.

At this time, the agency is also experiencing a shortage of space in its Rock County office in Luverne. Johnson said the lease of the current building expires at the end of August, and work is being done on a lease renewal if the space can be remodeled to meet anticipated needs.

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Julie Buntjer
Julie Buntjer joined the Daily Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington and graduate of Worthington High School, then-Worthington Community College and South Dakota State University, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. At the Daily Globe, Julie covers the agricultural beat, as well as Nobles County government, watersheds, community news and feature stories. In her spare time, she enjoys needlework (cross-stitch and hardanger embroidery), reading, travel, fishing and spending time with family. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at www.farmbleat.areavoices.com.
(507) 376-7330
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