WILMINGTON — During his time as a psychiatrist at a private hospital in Pennsylvania, Dr. Loren Crabtree recognized a troubling cycle with people struggling with mental health. While patients were stabilized in a hospital setting, once released they would “dysregulate” — or become mentally and emotionally imbalanced.
Crabtree decided there had to be a better way for individuals with recurring mental illness and co-occurring substance-use disorders to function within a community. He founded Project Transition, a behavioral healthcare program, in 1982 in Pennsylvania. The program provides housing and a hands-on approach for adults ages 18 to 65 to learn how to cope with serious chronic mental illness.
Participants in Project Transition often face suicidal and self-harm behaviors, schizoaffective disorder, post-traumtic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, eating disorder, personality disorder and substance abuse.
Over the last four decades, the residential rehabilitation healthcare has expanded into multiple facilities in Tennessee. On Friday, the first operation in North Carolina will open in Wilmington. In partnership with Trillium Health Resources, Project Transition will base its offices at 1514 Doctors Circle, with residents living in 10 Cypress Grove apartments across the street.
Referred to as a wellness and recovery center, the 3,800-square-foot office was once occupied by Coastal Neurology. According to New Hanover County property records, minor renovations were made to the building for $465,000 in June 2021. Changes included opening up office space for multipurpose rooms and adding a full kitchen to encourage community meals.
Twelve full-time staff members, all hired locally, will work at Project Transition. Employees include a board-certified psychiatrist, a program director, two clinicians, a psycho-social rehab counselor, a wellness specialist and a social worker. There are offices and group rooms available for educational seminars and daily living services.
According to the founder’s son, Luke Crabtree, who has been CEO and president of Project Transition since 2005, the facility doesn’t refer to people as patients, rather members.
“One of the things my father built as a core value is to treat our members with dignity and respect,” Crabtree said. “To think about a member as a whole person — not just a patient who needs medication. How do we support members to live a meaningful life in terms they define?”
Crabtree said he’s been in discussions with Trillium officials for about 18 months.
“Honestly, that’s pretty quick for us, but it would have been even quicker, but we had some strange Covid-19 building supply issues,” he said.
People admitted to Project Transition are either referred or seek help on their own. The program encourages participants to create a five-year vision, known as the Blue Sky Treatment, and realize innate strengths to reach their goals. Certified employees work with individuals to reframe their outlooks on the future and help them identify skills needed to be successful; that often includes encouraging members to take the necessary medications to do so, Crabtree said.
“The whole idea is, persons with mental illness have a lot of experience being where they don’t want to be — a lot of trauma, abandonment, isolation,” Crabtree explained. “It’s a combination of health and self-actualization. It’s a very holistic look.”
The Blue Sky metaphor carries into a tangible reminder. One wall within the wellness and recovery center is painted blue and members are encouraged to create clouds with their goals written and posted to the wall.
“They’re able to see what their goals are and see each other’s goals,” said Ellen Levin, senior director of community marketing and outreach.
Up to 30 members at a time comprise the program. Participants live in apartments, with up to two roommates also in the program, each apartment equipped with two bedrooms, one with two beds
The units are spread out amongst the complex as a way to integrate the members within the community. The apartment works as an additional incentive for members to attend the programming needed to adequately guide them through day-to-day living. They attend daily classes and group sessions.
“Residential advisors work with our members in the apartments on how to be a healthy apartment tenant and roommate,” Crabtree explained. “They work on creating a healthy living space, a clean-living space, work on menus based on their dietary needs, grocery shopping and recreation.”
Staff members are on site at the apartments during regular business hours and available after hours through a crisis line.
“The folks we want to serve have typically not thrived in other programs or settings because they don’t engage in the programming,” Crabtree said. “What we do is pick apartments that are, frankly, a little bit nicer than where the member would otherwise live. We want them in a nice place, want them to be there. We tell them, ‘Here’s the programming; you have to engage in that to stay.’”
Having the wellness center and apartments located in close proximity makes it easily accessible for the members. It’s also near New Hanover Regional Medical Center in case of emergency or the need for more extensive medical assistance.
Project Transition staff assist members with wellness plans to transition out of the program and live within the community. The goal is for members to “graduate” within 12 to 18 months.
For a member to be admitted to the program with insurance coverage, he or she needs to be part of the Trillium Healthcare Resources, which serves 26 counties. Trillium provides services for individuals with serious mental health conditions, intellectual and developmental disabilities and substance use disorders. Trillium and Project Transit both contributed to the funding of the project, which received state support from N.C. Department of Health and Human Services in terms of financing and start-up.
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