• 9 Investigates: Reality of mental illness in North Carolina

    By: Eric Philips


    Story highlights:

    • More than 1/3 of the beds at new Davidson mental health facility remain empty six months after opening
    • There were more than 40,000 suicides nationwide in 2012 -- 1,200 in N.C. alone
    • N.C. has double the national average of mental illness diagnoses in ERs

    CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Experts say one in five Americans suffers from some form of mental illness, and sometimes it is severe.

    A new hospital was built to address the growing need in the Charlotte area but now, more than six months later, a third of the beds sit empty.

    Behind the Scenes: Photos from the Carolinas HealthCare System Behavioral Facility in Davidson

    Pete Niessing is one who could benefit from the hospital. He suffers from severe depression.

    "I would never wish mental illness on my worst enemy," Niessing said. "I've gone to the edge, but I've not gone over."

    RAW INTERVIEW: Dealing with depression

    Niessing knew something was wrong as a teen, but fear of being stigmatized kept him from seeking help for nearly 30 years -- all while battling intense pain and despair.

    "And the only way I thought I could get out of it was to end my life," he said.

    Niessing is not alone. The latest data from 2012 shows there were more than 40,000 suicides nationwide -- 1,200 of them in North Carolina. That's more than the 32,000 traffic fatalities reported that year.



    Struggling to fill mental health professional positions

    Dr. John Santopietro is the chief clinical officer of behavioral health at Carolinas Healthcare. He said public interest in mental illness is piqued by high-profile suicide cases like Robin Williams.

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    But he went on to explain that it's something that emergency rooms across our area see every day. In fact, North Carolina doubles the national average of mental illness diagnoses in ERs, and mental illness is a leading cause of suicide.

    Among the reasons why the healthcare conglomerate built the Carolinas Healthcare System Behavioral Health in Davidson is the fact it has 66 beds. But despite an extremely high demand, a third of those beds are empty.

              "We need to staff it up," Santopietro said. "The workforce in mental healthcare is again completely inadequate to the task of finding psychiatrists."

    Santopietro said of the 1,100 psychiatric slots available in U.S. med schools annually, only 600 American students are filling them. Students from other countries fill most of the others.

    So, while hospital officials here struggle to recruit mental health professionals, 22 beds sit empty. To counter that, the hospital is offering virtual treatment in some cases, where patients are evaluated by a team of experts live via computer.

    It also provides mental health first aid training to organizations like Davidson Lifeline.


    Offering mental health resources and suicide prevention

    Lynn Henninghausen started the suicide prevention advocacy group in 2012 after Davidson saw five suicides in one year alone.

    "The easy part is offering a list of resources, but what we're trying to do is create relationships," Henninghausen said.


    Neissing attended one of the group's community forums after the death of Robin Williams.

    "This one event, this one event has turned my life around," he said.

    Alice McGinley's son Dan didn't get help in time.

    "He hung himself in the attic space off his bedroom," she told Channel 9.

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    Now McGinley, a trained counselor, speaks to high school students about suicide prevention.

              "If it could happen to my child it could happen to anybody's child," she said.

    Carolinas Healthcare officials said although they are emphasizing so-called “upstream care” so that more patients can avoid hospitalization, they hope to have enough staff to open the remainder of the beds at the Davidson facility within the next several months.

    Read our past 9 Investigates:

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