Steve Horton asked the more than 50 people gathered in the Pacific Health Education Center’s presentation room to raise their hands if they had a family member experiencing some type of mental challenges.

The majority of the hands around the room shot up while some people simply nodded their heads.

“Probably just about all of us,” the chief operating officer of the center said, surveying the crowd. “So this thing is personal.”

Horton and his team unveiled a new branch of the center based in Bakersfield, the Pacific Health Education Cognitive Center, to address mental health issues in the community with outpatient services. A ribbon cutting at the office at 5300 California Ave. on Thursday served as the “grand opening.” The Cognitive Center wing featured several offices and a group activity/therapy room. The Cognitive Center’s vision is to provide programs ranging from psychiatric evaluations and therapy to alcohol and drug treatment.

“We’re not targeting the people who have so much mental illness that they need to be hospitalized in a protected environment,” said Arlene R. Taylor, the center’s brain function specialist. “We’re not a state hospital. But those milder disorders, milder cognitive challenges, we think we can work with that.”

The center will start with 10 clients (and may expand up to 40), who have cognitive challenges, which may include low IQs or anxiety disorders, Taylor said. Dr. Eric G. Walsh, the chief medical officer, will decide which participants the center will accept after an evaluation, Taylor said. The Cognitive Center will also contract psychiatrists to evaluate potential clients, Taylor added.

The programs are funded by the Pacific Health Education Center with the goal of bringing in money through grants and billing for some services, Taylor said. That will provide the Cognitive Center with revenue to expand.

“(Bakersfield has) higher mental health needs than any place in the state,” Taylor said. “... That’s why Steve (Horton) said, ‘Let’s do this here.’ Perfect it and then we can replicate it.”

The center will provide transportation for its participants, as well as meals, activities, counseling and skill building. Horton already began Thursday signing contracts to partner with other local organizations.

The programs will start by teaching participants basic skills so they can take care of themselves, Taylor said, with the end goal of enough skills for clients to gain employment.

“The goal is to just start with a client and their family,” Taylor said, “and as they get healthier, it’s going to make the community healthier.”

Jon Mettus can be reached at 661-395-7389. Follow him on Twitter: @jmettus.

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