For a number of years, New Hampshire Hospital, the only psychiatric hospital in the state, has been massively overcrowded with too many patients and not enough beds. Patients had little choice but to leave the hospital only to find themselves living on the streets or seeking treatment in already crowded emergency rooms.
“There needs to be an array of treatment that used to exist,” said Ken Norton, M.D., executive director of the New Hampshire chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Right now, when patients are discharged, there’s very little step-down.”
That’s starting to change. Legislation was recently passed to fund more beds. In his State of the State address, Governor Chris Sununu spoke about the implementations necessary for people with mentally illness.
“We provided funding to establish 60 new beds for community-based transitional housing and created a fourth rapid response mobile crisis unit to divert hospitalizations for mental health issues,” he said.
“It is unacceptable for citizens in mental health crises to be waiting for treatment for weeks on end.”
As Sununu pointed out, bed space isn’t the only solution. Transitional housing bridges the gap between hospital care and living independently.
Harbor Homes in Nashua recently opened a 14-bed transitional housing unit with another six-bed unit scheduled to open in Bradford through NFI North. Harbor Homes has also contracted with another property for an additional 20 units within the next few months.
This kind of program is an essential element to end the overcrowding of hospitals. Without it, it’s a vicious cycle says Eliza Blondeau, psychiatric registered nurse supervisor at Harbor Homes.
“Patients that don’t need that much care have nowhere else to go,” she explained. “People that do need that care get stuck in the ER. The goal is to get the people out that don’t need it and put the people in that do. It helps everyone.”
Harbor Homes, a non-profit organization established in 1980 provides low-income, homeless, and disabled community members with affordable housing, primary and behavioral health care, employment and job training, and supportive services.
It is one of a six-partner organization in the Partnership for Successful Living, which also includes Keystone Hall, Healthy at Home, Milford Regional Counseling Services, Southern NH HIV/AIDS Task Force, and Welcoming Light, Inc.
The expectation for the patients in the transitional housing program is to become independent within two years, allowing room for new patients.
Kathryn Byrne, program director at Harbor Homes, said patients from New Hampshire Hospital get discharged directly into their care, which is staffed every day around the clock.
“We work with [patients] to get state, federal, and local benefits like food stamps,” she said. “We help with cooking, budgeting, connecting with a local church, tenant’s rights, and generally how to run a household.”
Byrne said the types of mental illness they usually see in the program are schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or border personality disorder. But, they have to be medically certified in order to be placed in the Harbor Homes housing.
She said these are people who need some level of care. A hospital stay is too much but they aren’t stable enough to be independent.
Both women are excited about the program’s future progress and its initial success. They acknowledge it’s a big adjustment for patients to leave, in some cases, long-term care to a state of near independence.
“These patients come out on conditional discharge and that discharge could be revoked. No one’s had to go back up.” said Blondeau. “They’ve got a roof over their heads and head-to-toe health care. I’m quite proud of it.”
By Eileen Weber