Bridging the mental health messaging gap

The need for the Bridge Center hasn’t changed since 2016, according to local officials. What has changed, however, is the messaging behind the concept, slated to make a comeback on the Dec. 8 ballot as a 1.5-mill property tax proposal.

There’s general agreement that there wasn’t a clear-cut communications strategy two years ago, the first time civic leaders tried to push a property tax to fund the center. Also bad was the timing, at least from a public relations standpoint: The proposal was not only on a tax-heavy ballot, but also the election was just four months after the August 2016 flood, leaving many voters cash-strapped after repairing their homes.

For those reasons—as well as a failure to address cultural concerns about mental health in the black community—the tax narrowly failed, 51% to 49%, when it first went before voters in December 2016. Absent operational funds in the tax defeat aftermath, the center has yet to open.

But, say mental health experts and law enforcement officers, the need for the Bridge Center in Baton Rouge still exists. And while the revived proposal has some factors working against it—such as sharing the ballot with the MoveBR sales tax roads proposal as well as Baton Rouge’s historic aversion to parishwide taxes, especially those on property—Bridge Center board members say they’re optimistic a new and improved communications strategy will work to their favor.

“We’re trying to avoid the term ‘Bridge Center’ in our messaging,” says Phillip LaFargue, a partner at Emergent Method, which is assisting Ourso Beychock with campaign outreach. “We don’t want people to think it’s associated with the roads tax.”

The concept of the facility—also billed as a “crisis stabilization center”—has been in the works since the 2015 demolition of the Earl K. Long Hospital, which also cost Baton Rouge the hospital’s specialized mental health emergency unit, causing overflows at the parish prison and local emergency rooms. The Baton Rouge Area Foundation unveiled plans for the Bridge Center in early 2016, pitching it as an effective mental health strategy that would save the city-parish money and reduce the parish prison population.

This time around, those behind the tax are taking their message to the people, speaking to any business, civic or neighborhood group that is willing to listen. Also, says LaFargue, they’re getting public officials—ranging from the district attorney to the former state Department of Health and Hospitals secretary—to give their vocal, and public, support to the plan.

All of that, and more—namely landing the support of the local business community—is important if the tax is to win approval, says Albert Samuels, dean of the Nelson Mandela College of Business at Southern University. “Typically, people who vote against taxes show up, so PR work will be required. If it’s just left to chance, it might not pass.”


To beef up outreach efforts, BRAF hired the Ourso Beychok direct mail consulting firm. The Trey Ourso and Michael Beychok partnership is generally known for its Democratic political operations, and is especially adept at voter targeting. In in this campaign, however, Beychock says he’s relying on tried-and-true methods of communication, funneling more money into extensive media outreach efforts.

“We have a more robust communication outreach plan and we’re starting earlier,” says Beychok, declining to discuss the cost of the BRAF-financed media campaign.

Key to the campaign, says Beychok, is explaining what the tax will do, breaking it down into three easily digestible tidbits: 1) saving money, 2) saving time, and 3) saving lives.

District Attorney Hillar Moore, Parish Coroner Beau Clark and Capital Area Human Services Executive Director Jan Kasofsky have all experienced firsthand what a city without a dedicated mental health facility looks like. As vocal proponents of the tax, each is taking an active role in conveying that image in their campaign talks around the parish.

As envisioned, the center would stabilize people with mental illness or related substance abuse issues, and connect them with care providers for the treatment they need. Currently, those potential patients’ first stops are either the emergency room or parish prison—and the community foots the bill. If implemented, supporters estimate the Bridge Center would save East Baton Rouge Parish some $55 million in its first 10 years.

As coroner, Clark signs off on the involuntary committal of the mentally ill. Within that purview, he’s responsible for orders of protective custody, about 1,000 of which he signs a year—a number that has grown precipitously since assuming the position in 2012. In all, Clark handles about 9,000 mental health cases annually.

Those mental health issues are often intertwined with substance abuse issues, he says, with many patients also suffering from opioid abuse issues. When Clark became coroner six years ago, he investigated 28 overdose deaths; last year it was 111, with more than 97% of those opioid-related.

“There might not be a direct connection between the two, but we find that a large portion of the population have both,” Clark says.

It’s a trend regularly seen by Moore, the district attorney who laments local jails being filled past capacity with people who shouldn’t be behind bars. Police officers in multiple precincts spend over half their shifts transporting the same individuals with mental health problems—trips that can easily take four to 12 hours of an officer’s time.

A crisis stabilization center would free up law enforcement officers to fight crime, says Moore, who’s been working on expanding pretrial release efforts to divert nonviolent offenders with mental health problems away from prison.

“Mental health has taken over a significant part of what we do, day-in and day-out, fueled by the heroin and opioid issues the nation is facing,” Moore says. “These patients are now defendants.”

Kasofsky, executive director for Capital Area Human Services, remembers giving presentations to national organizations about Earl K. Long’s Mental Health Emergency Room Extension. It was an industry success story, she says: While the MHERE was open for two years at Earl K. Long, no one was transferred to prison, and 50% of patients came by their own will.

“We were able to reduce hospitalization down from 100 percent to 32 percent,” Kasofsky says. “Since then, communities that have developed something like an MHERE have seen the same decrease in hospitalizations.”

ERs don’t have the same effect. Over 1,500 people arrive at community emergency rooms each month for psychological consultation, according to campaign messaging. For those experiencing a crisis, ERs don’t have the resources to perform the longer-term observational stabilization services, such as sobering or detoxification, that those in crisis need to recover from mental health or acute substance abuse issues.

Enter the proposed mental health tax, which would fund sobering beds, medical detoxification, behavioral health respite, crisis intervention services and pre-trial release. It would also fund a mobile assessment team, which would free up law enforcement officers from driving patients to hospitals, and a case management team, a service Kasofsky says is lacking across the entire continuum.

Beychok’s company is relaying those points across several different mediums, including television, social media and a website—none of which were utilized in 2016. The most critical of these is TV, he says, which wasn’t utilized at all in 2016.

While a location for the facility isn’t 100% certain, board chairman and former DHH Secretary Kathy Kliebert says they’d want to use an existing building and are eyeing Baton Rouge General and the old Woman’s Hospital site as possibilities. She says the majority of “in-your-face” publicity won’t begin until after the Nov. 6 election.

“This time, the message will be stronger,” Moore says. “People will realize it’s a serious issue regardless of color or creed. Our message will show people how it does affect them.”

Phillip LaFargue