Santa Fe County and Bernalillo County have joined forces in a plan to open a new behavioral health services center for residents in rural Edgewood and the East Mountains area.

The center will be located adjacent to the medical and dental facilities in Santa Fe County about a mile from the Bernalillo County line and will serve residents of both. It is scheduled to open this fall once renovations to the existing building are complete.

The idea is based on a peer-to-peer "living room" model: It will be staffed by licensed mental health professionals, though the majority of employees will be regular people who have gone through a peer support training program to learn how to guide support groups, stabilize individuals in the midst of a crisis, advocate on their behalf and connect them to other services.

Rachel O'Connor, Santa Fe County director of Health and Human Services, says the center has been a long time coming.

For years, Edgewood, Santa Fe County and the federal government have identified Edgewood and the surrounding area as "a health resource shortage area," says O'Connor. "People didn't have adequate access to behavioral health or regular health care."

The county opened a medical and dental service in Edgewood earlier this year, operated by First Choice Community Healthcare. But O'Connor says recent data detailing psychiatric hospitalizations across Santa Fe and Bernalillo counties shows residents of the East Mountain area end up in the emergency room for behavioral crises at unusually high rates, indicating the need to prioritize behavioral health as well.

O'Connor says the costs of those visits strain the system, and aren't the best option for many patients.

"People with a behavioral health crisis are often re-traumatized by the chaos of an emergency room experience, and often emergency rooms aren't well-equipped to handle a psychiatric crisis," O'Connor says.

Due to the stigma and costs associated with a visit to the ER, most people end up at the hospital as a last resort amid a mental health crisis, says Charlene Pyskoty, the Bernalillo County Commissioner whose district will likely account for about 30% of people served by the new behavioral health center.

Pyskoty says the goal is to create a cost effective means for people to find immediate help and a connection to other mental health services well in advance of a visit to the hospital, as well as the long-term community support that could mitigate the likelihood of an individual spiraling into crisis in the first place. She also expects it could have a positive impact on reducing incarceration and overdose rates for the area.

"I think the best way to help people to prevent substance abuse or heal from trauma is to help people feel connected early on," Pyskoty says, speaking from her experience as a licensed mental health councilor and professional therapist. She says she's envisioned peer-to-peer support for the area since long before she ran for office.

"People who live in rural areas have to drive a long way to just go to a therapy appointment, and so having this facility there is just such a huge deal," she says. Her vision is of a community space that could offer after-school services for kids and a healthy environment for young people to connect, where adults struggling to heal from addiction or trauma could join evening support groups, and where families could find childcare and parenting classes on weekends.

But Pyskoty acknowledges that the center may not be equipped to handle people facing very serious and acute problems.

Pyskoty tells SFR: "I see this more as a prevention and wellness model that will be able to help the most number of people. But for those who need more critical services, there's still a serious gap in New Mexico."