‘People need help’; Steve Smith’s purpose for opening Mecklenburg’s first behavioral health urgent care

“We have to quit telling people to toughen up.” Smith’s foundation does school enrichment programs along with emotional learning and physical health services. This mental health piece brings it full circle.
Smith’s foundation does school enrichment programs along with emotional learning and physical health services. This mental health piece brings it full circle.
Published: Mar. 2, 2022 at 6:09 PM EST|Updated: Mar. 2, 2022 at 6:48 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - A few weeks ago, you might have seen that former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith partnered with Mecklenburg County to help start a behavioral health urgent care in Charlotte.

But what does that mean and how can it help you?

Anchor Molly Grantham has been digging into Mecklenburg County’s mental health data and sat down with Smith one-on-one.

He tells her the Steve Smith Family Foundation is partnering up with multiple groups – including you, the taxpayer – to build this new Behavioral Health Urgent Care (BHUC) center. It will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for anyone aged four years or older; regardless of insurance status. You can take your child there in the middle of the night if you’re worried or having a crisis. Whether for suicidal thoughts or some other type of behavioral or psychological trauma, the center will be able to help.

Anchor Molly Grantham has been digging into Mecklenburg County’s mental health data and sat down with Smith one-on-one.

“We all were having issues in this pandemic,” Smith says. “We’re all trying to decipher, ‘How do we live in this now?’ People need help figuring it out.”

The center is currently under construction in east Charlotte on Colonnade Drive.

Michelle Hunt, Executive Director for Steve Smith Family Foundation, says she hopes it will be open this time next year.

“What options do you have right now at 2 a.m. if you feel that you’re in a crisis, or have a child that you feel like is needing help?” she asked. “Right now, where do you go?”

The answer? An emergency room.

“It’s no fault of the hospitals, but people can sit there for hours,” Smith says. “That’s just not the right place. We need a facility. Where is a facility? Where is the opportunity? Mecklenburg County hasn’t had that opportunity…but now we do.”

Related: Steve Smith, Mecklenburg leaders announce county’s first-ever behavioral health urgent care center

To get some numbers regarding how many people are going to Mecklenburg County’s emergency rooms (ERs), we called Alliance Health, who recently partnered with Mecklenburg County.

Alliance’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Mehul Mankad, says the latest numbers they have are from 2020. During that year – which coincided with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic – 3,455 people walked into an ER in Mecklenburg County with suicidal thoughts, and 2,915 people walked in with psychological trauma.

Dr. Mankad says those numbers represent higher percentages of ER visits involving mental health patients than in years past. With COVID continuing into 2021 and high levels stress stemming from multiple areas, one might suspect last year was even higher.

“We have to quit telling people to toughen up,” Smith says. “For me, my mother was a survivor of domestic violence. I know there are things that I still, when I close my eyes, can still see and visualize. I know that is why I get counseling. As a young boy, I didn’t know how to process some of those things I experienced, and seen and witnessed. I needed to unload that and also say it wasn’t right. It helps me. And we need people to know they’re not soft if they don’t know how to process everything.”

Carolina Panthers legend Steve Smith has partnered with Mecklenburg County to open behavioral health center in Charlotte.

Something that might surprise you is that other North Carolina cities already have BHUCs in place. In fact, the Research Triangle Park area has two. One in Raleigh and one in Durham.

We traveled to the one in Durham, called Carolina Outreach, which is connected to Alliance Health. Renee White, the associate vice president of operations at the center, says that like the one coming to Charlotte, her BHUC also serves anyone over the age of four.

“The majority of folks we serve here have Medicaid, or no insurance,” White says. “Many are uninsured. There is a great need for this type of healthcare help for people around the country, really.”

She added that she feels confident their center has “100 percent saved lives.”

“Mental health care impacts everything,” she says. “How you feel about your day. How you feel about how you parent. How you take care of your physical health needs. So anyway we can increase access to therapists, and nurses specialized to work with folks in need…only helps the whole person.”

Smith agrees, but adds that building it isn’t easy. His team doesn’t pretend to know all the answers and he says they’re learning every day.

“It’s like drinking water out of a fire hydrant with a paper straw,” he says. “What we’re dealing with and what we’ve experienced in the last, say, year, in preparation and planning, is drinking water out of a fire hydrant with a paper straw. It has been a lot.”

Related: Steve Smith gives emotional words about Mecklenburg’s first behavioral health urgent care center

The whole Smith family is living this passion project. Steve and his wife, Angie, have four kids: Peyton is 24, Bailey is 20, Boston is 16 and Deuce is 7. All of them, Steve says, are giving their time.

But be careful before you say this is a “gift from Steve” – he says money and more effort are needed from the community.

The cost to build the Charlotte BHUC will be approximately $3.6 million.

Hunt says Mecklenburg County will give $2 million to build the facility, and Alliance Health will contribute a currently undetermined amount. The Steve Smith Family Foundation will give the rest. Those figures are just to cover construction costs. Once complete, it will take a rough operating budget of $1.6 million to run each year with at least 19 staff members including licensed therapists, crisis workers, medical assistance and psychiatrists.

“It takes a village to raise just one child,” Smith says. “If we have enough people doing it, rather than just doing a TikTok or an ice bucket challenge, but actually doing this, something tangible, then it’ll be actually meaningful.”

Legendary Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith spoke about what mental health and this special partnership with his foundation means to him.

Hunt says when someone arrives to the behavioral center, they will have 23 hours to get help before having to leave.

“Realistically, individuals will be there for a lot less time than 23 hours,” she says. “But the idea is that someone is being observed, assessed, stabilized if necessary, and given the appropriate discharge plan within those 23 hours to go and do what they need to do.”

“It will be staffed according to what Alliance Health says is the service definition of what a BHUC needs to have. And Daymark – who runs behavior centers across North Carolina – will be responsible for day-to-day operations. They will be the ones hiring and making sure we have what we need for the facility.”

There will not be beds, Hunt adds, only observation chairs. The plan is to have 16 of them. That will encourage people to know the idea is to come in, get help, and be sent out with paperwork and a plan for long-term assistance offered by one of their partnering groups within the county.

But why is Smith working so hard towards making this dream facility of his a reality?

There are two reasons, he explains. The first he says is that his foundation already does school enrichment programs along with emotional learning and physical health services. This mental health piece, the BHUC, just makes it full circle.

The second reason is a little more involved.

“There was a complete stranger who donated some money to University of Utah years ago,” Smith says. “The University of Utah says ‘Hey, with this money we’re going to give a scholarship to two kids.’ One of those kids happened to be me. Without that stranger donating that money, the school would not have had that opportunity to go to Los Angeles and see some scrawny kid – me – and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to ultimately come here, and live the last 20-plus years in North Carolina.”

“So many things have happened because of that stranger. Without that person deciding to donate, deciding to use all their hard earned money, without them saying, ‘Here you go – take a chance on someone else,’ then none of me being part of this would be possible. Knowing that I believe it’s my fiduciary responsibility, and biblical responsibility, and also my dad responsibility, to help. To contribute. To add something more than just saying I’d like to add something.”

Grantham followed that up by asking if he had ever tried to find out who the anonymous donor was.

“No,” the former NFL superstar says. “But I don’t need to find out who they are, I just need to make sure I mimic what they’re doing. That’s part of why I’m doing all this. Let my actions say thank you rather than spend time trying to track the person down and finding words of gratitude. Just show it with action.”

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