Filling a Gap in the Road to Recovery

Support for Those With Behavioral Health Needs

Two years ago, MedStar Harbor Hospital opened several brand new behavioral health treatment areas devoted to the diagnosis and treatment of conditions ranging from depression and anxiety, to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. This has made it possible for the physicians and therapists at the hospital to offer a broad range of treatment options tailored to fit the needs of each individual patient.

Some patients require inpatient care. Others are facing mental health challenges that can be best managed on an outpatient basis. But a great number of patients need a level of care that is somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. MedStar Harbor’s Partial Hospitalization Program is designed to fill that gap.

“Partial hospitalization serves as a step-down program for patients who no longer require inpatient care, or a step-up for those who need a bit more support than what can be accomplished in a traditional outpatient setting,” says Donna Keaveney, a psychotherapist at MedStar Harbor. “The program helps patients stabilize their symptoms and learn comprehensive coping skills, so they can quickly return to work or their community.”

Patients who take part in the Partial Hospitalization Program come to MedStar Harbor anywhere from two to five days per week, for approximately six hours at a time, to participate in intensive group therapy sessions. The primary goal is to support each patient in gaining a better understanding of their illness and how to manage it.

The program is housed in the same area of the hospital as the behavioral health outpatient clinic. As patients transition from one level of care to another, they continue to see the same physicians and therapists in the same location. And it is that consistency in their care, in a genuinely supportive environment, that helps many patients who struggle with mental health issues eventually thrive.

“They are coming into a nurturing, healing environment, where they feel welcome and accepted,” Keaveney notes. “They get to meet other people who face similar challenges, and they start to learn how to manage their illness, so their illness doesn’t manage them.”

Jemima Kankam, MD, medical director for the Partial Hospitalization Program, explains that making people feel comfortable with the concept, from day one or even slightly before, is critically important.

“Patients on the inpatient unit who may benefit from the Partial Hospitalization Program are invited to come in for a ‘share day’ so they can get a feel for how the program works before they get started,” says Dr. Kankam. “With the patient’s permission, we also encourage family members and significant others to participate, so they have an improved understanding of their loved one’s illness and can provide much-needed support.”

Jill Johnson, vice president of Operations at MedStar Harbor, says that one of the biggest barriers in the treatment of behavioral health disorders is to convince patients that they can talk openly and honestly about their feelings. People who face these challenges are sometimes hesitant or embarrassed to open up to family members, or even their primary care provider. In other cases, people who need help delay seeking care, simply because they have fears about treatment, and what that plan might look like.

“I like to draw a parallel with services that people are more familiar with, to help them see how this process works,” says Johnson. “Consider the care someone receives when they have a stroke. They may be an inpatient in an acute care setting first, then their recovery continues with various phases and intensities of outpatient care. Through these processes, they relearn fundamental life skills to eventually function at home with less support. The model is essentially the same when we are caring for patients with mental health disorders.”

Plans are under development now to expand the scope of services offered by the Partial Hospitalization Program in the future. One addition, according to Dr. Kankam, will be the integration of chemical dependency rehabilitation support groups.

“There is a strong association between mental health issues and substance abuse, and it is our job to address it,” she said. “By providing these resources, our patients have a better chance to recover and regain their quality of life.”