When in the throes of a severe mental health crisis, many people end up in an emergency room or a jail cell. Neither is ideal. But that’s just one of many ways a fragmented mental healthcare system can cause additional suffering for those experiencing addiction or psychiatric disorders.

To create a more comprehensive approach to mental healthcare, Orange County leaders established Be Well OC several years ago. The nonprofit connects more than 100 public services, community organizations and healthcare providers – including UCI – committed to building a better mental health safety net.

“Be Well OC is a remarkably innovative countywide collaboration to take care of people with mental health challenges in the community – from homeless individuals to people who need acute intervention,” says Dr. Steve Goldstein, UCI’s vice chancellor for health affairs.

In 2020, Be Well OC’s first facility opened, thanks to $16.6 million in funding from the O.C. Board of Supervisors and additional investments from local insurance and healthcare providers. Located in Orange, just a stone’s throw from UCI Medical Center, the 60,000-square-foot building includes a safe place for patients to detox or get sober and a short-term residential recovery unit for those who need to stay a few weeks, as well as crisis stabilization services. Be Well OC fills an important gap of “in between” care for individuals not acutely ill enough to require hospitalization but not stable enough for outpatient treatment.

“Be Well OC is a stunningly beautiful and healing environment that can better serve a lot of patients who don’t necessarily need to be in the emergency room,” says Dr. Paramjit Joshi, interim chair of the Department of Psychiatry & Human Behavior in UCI’s School of Medicine.

“Our services are complementary, so together we can provide a better continuum of mental healthcare.” She’s working with Be Well OC on another planned facility in Irvine, which has already received $5 million in funding from the state of California. “We believe that Be Well OC will not only be a great resource for the county, but in fact will be seen as a model for the entire country,” said O.C. Board of Supervisors Chairman Andrew Do at a press conference last August.

Frontline mental healthcare providers at UCI agree.

“No one else in California is doing this. It’s not just unique; it’s truly transformational,” says Dr. Robert McCarron, a UCI professor of psychiatry & human behavior who also volunteers as the medical & community education director for Be Well OC.

One of the distinguishing features of the nonprofit is that it offers services to any local residents, regardless of what health insurance they have – or don’t have. McCarron points out that this can be especially critical for the most vulnerable and underserved community members.

In addition to building wellness hubs around the county to directly provide mental healthcare, Be Well OC promotes initiatives to reduce the stigma around mental illness, educate first responders who encounter people in crisis, and close treatment gaps by sharing data across agencies. McCarron and other UCI faculty are actively involved in community education and outreach efforts and anticipate ongoing collaboration with the Irvine facility.

“Be Well OC has created an exemplary partnership between the academic and public sectors that ultimately helps elevate mental healthcare for our entire community,” Goldstein says. “I’m looking forward to what’s ahead.”