How can the state reform its long-neglected psychiatric hospitals?

BY Briana Vannozzi, Senior Correspondent |

A recent report outlines an 18-month plan to overhaul all four state psychiatric hospitals. It stems from years of understaffing and underfunding. The state Health Department says they’ve hit the ground running since Gov. Murphy took office, with changes underway to turn around a long-neglected system.

“Our primary focus is really developing a single system of care with shared consistent practices and protocols,” said Deborah Hartel, deputy commissioner of integrated health services for the New Jersey Department of Health.

After a hiring freeze set in place by the Christie administration, reports circulated of violent assaults on the rise at the hospitals and a severe shortage of psychiatrists and health care workers. Ann Klein Forensic Center in West Trenton was on the verge of losing accreditation. Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Parsippany was no better. Before he left office, Christie commissioned a $750,000 report from an outside consultant. The results were just released and they highlight what many in the mental health community already knew.

“In last six years, the state closed three other major institutions — one for geriatric psychiatric patients and two for individuals with developmental disabilities. And as a result of that, the existing psychiatric hospital system, especially Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, became overcrowded,” said Robert Davison, CEO of the Mental Health Association of Essex and Morris Counties.

According to the state Health Department, key changes are already in place, including: $23 million for capital improvements and technology upgrades; the hiring of 220 new employees — 90 at Ann Klein Forensic Center and another 37 at Greystone Park; chief medical officers in place at all four hospitals; a 30 percent reduction in violent assaults to patients and staff across all systems in the first quarter of the year; and discharging 60 patients back to the community since January.

The CEO of Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, Tomika Carter, spoke to these changes.

“We recently have hired a medical director. We received a quality of improvement director, and most recent we have a new hire of a chief nursing operator. So our key leadership roles have been actually filled, which is great news,” Carter said.

State senator and former governor Dick Codey is a longtime advocate for the mentally ill. Despite improvements, he’s still pushing the state to reopen a fifth facility.

“This commitment with real professionals knowing what they’re doing have started to turn around the system like I haven’t seen in many a decade,” he said. “I want to see the mix of geriatric patients with younger patients change. Younger patients tend to be, obviously, more violent and that’s a bad mix.”

That’s unlikely, though. The state says it’s focused on community reintegration, even as both the state and nation face a severe shortage of licensed psychiatric workers.

“By and large the focus of wellness and recovery is really moving our patients through their inpatient stay stabilizing them and connecting them to community care providers,” Hartel said.

The work has only just begun, and it’s going to take more than extra resources. The health commissioner says he wants to see a cultural shift around psychiatric hospitals so they’re not thought of as detention or correctional centers, but places for high-class rehabilitation.