February 9, 2014 Updated: February 9, 2014 at 3:22 am
Fort Carson's latest addition is complete with rounded corners, detachable doors and suicide-proof towel hooks.
The 14-bed in-patient psychiatric facility on the fifth floor of Evans Army Community Hospital has been in the works for nearly a decade and will accept its first patient in a few weeks. Completed as part of a $27 million renovation of the hospital, it will allow the Army to care for its most serious mental health patients at the post, rather than sending them to Colorado Springs or Pueblo.
"The caring starts here," Brig Gen. John Cho said at a Jan. 30 ceremony to open the new facility.
Cho, now commander of Army medicine in the western U.S., pushed for the psych ward when he commanded Evans in 2005. He said adding the higher level of care will allow Fort Carson to deal with mentally ill troops who increasingly are being allowed to recover and stay in the service.
"Now, 85 percent of those with PTSD stay in uniform," Cho said.
But recovery from the mental wounds of war can be a rough road. The facility at Evans shows the kind of trouble planners anticipate.
Chairs in group therapy rooms are hollow plastic weighted with sand. They weigh in at hundreds of pounds, so they cannot be thrown. Windows are encased in Lexan, making them shatterproof so the glass can't be used as a suicide tool and jumping is prevented.
To make the rooms suicide-safe, everything that could be used for hanging has been removed or modified. For instance, customized fire sprinkler heads are flush with the ceiling.
"Everything is set up for safety," said Lt. Col. Chuck Weber, the post's top psychiatrist.
But there's also art on the walls that flows with interior design plans.
Lt. Col. Sean Harbert, a psychiatric nurse practitioner, said the ward is supposed to be a place of healing.
"There was a lot of thought put into making this look like a hospital and not a prison," he said.
Plans call for a staff of about 30 soldiers and civilians to oversee up to 14 patients, providing care that includes checks every 15 minutes.
The facility won't eliminate Fort Carson's reliance on mental health facilities off the post. For now, the psychiatric ward will house only active duty soldiers, with family members and retirees sent elsewhere for care.
It's also not planned as a long-term psychiatric facility. Patients in crisis will use it for stays averaging three days.
For troops, getting care close to their unit on Fort Carson can be key to rapid recovery. Weber said soldiers who are visited by commanders regularly during their psychiatric care often see their stay in a mental health facility reduced by 60 percent.
Mental health care in the Army is in high demand. A 2013 survey of 10,000 soldiers by the National Institutes of Health found 21 percent of troops had used mental health services in the past 12 months.
While the rooms at Evans are ready for occupancy, recruiting for staff for the psychiatric ward is underway.
"We're still in the hiring process," he said.