In its five years, Unity Center has provided care for more than 22,000 patients in crisis from across Oregon and nationwide.
Few, if any, social service agencies had the patience, perseverance, staff experience and compassion to help Bailey Grigsby with several years of emotional struggles, including suicidal ideation.
But Unity Center for Behavioral Health did. Grigsby says that’s one big reason she’s now flourishing as a licensed (in both Oregon and Washington) emergency medical technician, college student and full-time employee at a local ambulance company.
“Unity was the one place I could get help,” says Grigsby. “I was on the verge of being committed to the state hospital. But Dr. (Karina) Stone told me what I needed to do to avoid that. She and the staff gave me a specific treatment plan that helped turn me around. I attended group meetings and took care of myself physically. And I communicated my feelings about hurting myself.”
Grigsby’s experience also explains why Unity Center and its staff — celebrating their fifth anniversary since opening in January of 2017 — has become such a critical pillar of the local social services system. It is the one place that patients of every kind, particularly those with few alternatives, can count on for help.
“The level of care that we provide can’t be found anywhere else,” says Unity Center’s president, Melissa Eckstein. “Our staff provides holistic, high-level, quality of care for people in crisis. We take an empathetic, innovative approach that helps people throughout their journey.” Eckstein also points out that Unity Center operates the only psychiatric emergency services unit in Oregon, as well as one of only two inpatient adolescent units in Oregon.
Unity Center’s comprehensive services and its staff’s dedication matter now more than ever. A methamphetamine epidemic has affected local communities. A houseless crisis has deepened mental health issues in at-risk groups. And the COVID-19 pandemic has de-stabilized the entire world the past two years.
“The challenges can be extraordinary. But this team always shows up. They give their heart and soul to their patients,” says Unity Center’s chief nursing officer, Kari Howard. “They’ve never stepped away from the work. Instead, they’ve stepped into it. The people that work at Unity are mission driven and truly amazing. They inspire me every day.”
During the pandemic, Unity Center and its staff has kept its doors open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, giving compassionate in-person psychiatric care to anyone needing emergency mental health services. They’ve also given more than 350 vaccines to patients since late June of 2021, providing COVID-19 protection to a vulnerable population.
Unity Center’s Beginnings
Using a $20 million gift from the Robert D. and Marcia H. Randall Charitable Trust, four health systems — Adventist Health, Kaiser Permanente, Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) and Legacy Health — combined staff, ideas and resources to launch Unity Center in 2017. Since that time, hundreds of dedicated employees have played a role in caring for more than 22,000 patients from across Oregon and nationwide.
The work hasn’t been easy. But defeating obstacles has never been a one-off for Unity Center. It’s part of its DNA.
Bringing together staff from four different hospital systems was a challenge — both in terms of blending different administrative practices and standards of care. Still, five years later, these struggles are increasingly in the rearview.
Eckstein likens Unity Center to a start-up, where the first several years are a hectic exercise in trial and error and sometimes failure.
“That’s part of the development,” Eckstein says. “Every new hospital goes through that.”
This year will be one of re-visioning and re-thinking approaches, Eckstein says. The challenges ahead are enduring ones for social services agencies: Expanding new and stable partnerships and finding ways to support a workforce that, despite daily stress, always performs heroically.
For Grigsby, the staff is what makes Unity Center special, a difference maker.
“A lot of other places I went to would not help me,” Grigsby says. “They were quick to push me out. But not Unity. I have spent a lot of time at Unity, a lot of holidays there. I’ve known that staff for years now — since I was an adolescent. They believed in me. And I think they could see the potential of what I could be when I couldn’t.”