When someone with a mental illness experiences emotional distress, where does he or she go? In most of the country, the options are few: a hospital emergency room or a psychiatric hospital ward. For more than 10 years, though, Mainers in crisis have had the option of staying overnight in a homelike setting where they can talk to other people who have faced and weathered the same struggles.

Sadly, this resource may not be around much longer. The Learning and Recovery Center, a peer-run crisis respite center in Brunswick, could shut its doors June 30. Sweetser, the nonprofit that operates the center, blames the state’s reluctance to provide additional funding; the Maine Department of Health and Human Services cites uncertainty over where the extra money would be going. More details are emerging, but while the two sides fight over what to them is a small amount of money, truly needy people could be deprived of a critical service.

Peer-run crisis respite centers are based on the idea that people in distress have a greater chance of recovering from a crisis in a calm, safe space than in a chaotic medical setting. Unlike employees of a psychiatric facility, respite center staff don’t tell clients what to do – they help set goals and access the resources needed to reach them. That the center employees have also “been there” gives clients hope that they can overcome their own crises and move on.

Peer-run crisis respite centers are relatively new, and there’s not yet a lot of research on their impact. One major study – which compared two groups of people, all of whom had been judged to be a danger to themselves – concluded that clients of a respite center experienced greater relief from psychiatric symptoms than did patients in a locked psychiatric ward. The cost was also lower: $211 per day, compared to $665 a day for hospitalization.

Respite centers also have been found to increase autonomy. Instead of seeing themselves as passive recipients of treatment, clients develop the skills to shape their own lives, thus reducing the need for more services from doctors and hospitals.

Sweetser’s operation – which serves about 1,000 people a year, including people recovering from trauma and substance abuse as well as those with mental health issues – is the only peer-run crisis respite center in Maine. Now it’s scheduled to close because of a dispute over the agency’s request for an additional $50,000 in state funding.

Though state and Sweetser officials reached an impasse over this issue after negotiating for a year, it’s time for them to make another attempt at a compromise. Given that Sweetser has a $50 million annual budget – and that the DHHS’ budget is $3.4 billion – it’s saddening to think that the fate of a program that has helped so many people could hinge on such a relatively small sum.