KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – The closure of the state funded Lakeshore Mental Health Institute in 2012 led to an array of changes in the community. Hundreds of patients had to be relocated, and 11 were left with no one to care for them. State leaders in Nashville thought the closure would be good for the community, saying it would allow more patients to be treated for less money, while local leaders feared the worst.

A former patient of Lakeshore shared her experience, telling the story from an inside perspective.

It all started in the summer of 2010 with a family argument and ended with Amanda Wells being left on the streets with nowhere to turn. An outburst, not understood by her family, resulted in eviction from their home. They didn’t know how to handle Wells’s condition or who to turn to for help, so when she entered a catatonic state, she says they left her alone on the streets.

According to staff members at Helen Ross McNabb Center who took her in, Wells stayed in the very spot they left her for six days without eating or drinking. The unforgiving sun left third degree burns on her body. That’s when she was taken to the emergency room. She could not speak or communicate with emergency responders, and eventually at age 26, she was admitted to Lakeshore Mental Health Institute, the only inpatient treatment center of its kind in Knoxville.

Prior to her admission, Wells and many others like her, had been in and out of treatment centers. She said she “felt very sad,” and sometimes could not leave her bed due to her overwhelming condition. Her family did not have the means or the knowledge to seek proper treatment. They did not encourage her to take her medication, or continue visits to out-patient facilities where she had been treated several times after she attempted to take her own life.

Like many families in East Tennessee, they had no idea how to help Wells or how to contact someone who could.

She spent two years at Lakeshore. She almost never left her room during her time there, and only communicated her meal plan to staff members by circling choices on a page.

“I just felt too sad to leave my room or talk while I was there,” she said.

Then everything changed.

It’s been four years since Lakeshore closed. Now 30-year-old Amanda Wells chats freely with others, lives on her own, and even volunteers at Young Williams Animal Center for fun.

The spark that ignited the rapid improvement of Wells’s quality of life came from a small center established shortly after Lakeshore’s closing called Willow Cottage, which is managed by Helen Ross McNabb Center. It was initially created to house those eleven Lakeshore patients who would otherwise have been left on the street. Their focus is centered around not just treating patients, but equipping them with the ability to be independent, and the facility receives funding from the state.

A case manager, who Amanda calls one of her greatest friends, visits her in her new home to make sure she continues doing well. Her progress speaks volumes about the level of care she received at Willow Cottage, but unfortunately many East Tennesseans do not receive treatment for their mental illness.

Lakeshore’s closing was followed by a spike in the inmate population in Knox County as well as the percentage of those inmates who were homeless at time of arrest. When asked about the closure of Lakeshore, Former District Attorney Randy Nichols of the Knox County Sheriff’s Office said, “[Lakeshore] is gone and it’s never coming back.” According to Nichols, the state was spending around $22,000,000 a year to operate the facility. “Promises were made that once we close it down, worry not friends, not one penny is gonna go to waste. You’re gonna have all 22 million, and I’m not saying that’s not the case, it’s just we’re having a difficult time finding it. I worry that it was some effort to save money. I understand that we wanted to change the way we do this business… I believe it was a mistake “

State Commissioner Doug Varney spoke of changing the Behavioral Health Department’s budget’s priorities in 2011 prior to Lakeshore’s closure. He announced closing plans that same year for the facility despite Knox County leaders push back against the action.

Willow Cottage can only treat 12 patients at a time, and getting a place there is no easy task. Michael Waltke, Senior Director of Outpatient Mental Health and Recovery Services said it’s difficult to be admitted to Willow Cottage. He explains what someone who is interested in seeking help could do to get placement in the facility.

“It’s very hard… We only have 12 beds. What happens when we do have an opening, our program was designed to be a program for somebody who’s already in the hospital, so our referrals come directly from Moccasin Bend right now. So Cassie Satterfield, an Intensive Term Support case manager, would go down and she meets with people who have been at Moccasin Bend for several months or years. It’s really designed to serve people who can’t get placement or who are stuck at the hospital.”

Getting admitted to the state run mental health hospital Moccasin Bend in Chattanooga isn’t much easier. Michael Machak, Director of Communications for the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse said in order to be admitted, the potential patient must be subjected to an initial screening process with a Crisis Services professional who determines the situation to be a dire emergency. If the person passes that screening, they must then be submitted to a second round of screenings at the hospital.

The only other case by which patients can be admitted requires a court order.

Often times, in order to receive treatment the patient must be able to provide proof of residency, or have Medicare or Social Security coverage, thereby leaving little in the way of in patient treatment options for the homeless.

“Homelessness is a big issue,” said Waltke. “We do have a couple homeless programs. We have The Path, and a transitional program who go out, try to hook up with people who are homeless and they work with them for usually three to six months to try to get them on Social Security or get a job. That kind of thing. The biggest thing they do is something called SOAR which is basically a quick track to getting them signed up for Social Security.”

Commissioner Varney was not available for comment, but Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett says he believes the closure of Lakeshore was not good for Knoxville. He believes that people who suffer from mental illness are in desperate need for an advocate.

The staff at Helen Ross McNabb’s Willow Cottage believe that access to more resources allowing them to serve more people could make an extremely positive impact on the Knoxville community.

A lack of funds and a shortage of qualified mental health care workers makes the enlargement of the program nearly impossible.

Willow Cottage receives hundreds of calls from people seeking a place at the facility, but they are forced to turn most of them away.

However, if you or someone you know is seeking help, there are still options available at the Helen Ross McNabb Outpatient Center.

“I would tell them to pick up the phone and call,” said Waltke.

Even if you do not qualify for in patient treatment, the staff at Helen Ross McNabb stress the importance of taking the first steps towards rehabilitation.

Call 865-539-2409 to reach the Mobile Crisis Center.