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Health Matters 7/7: Celebrating 50 Years of Mental Health Care in Central New Jersey and Beyond

By Peter Thomas, PhD

When Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health first opened its doors in July 1971, the way mental health care was delivered was dramatically different than it is today.

Treatment for behavioral health conditions, such as depression, anxiety and substance use, typically involved an extended stay in the hospital—normally at least a month—until the patient was well enough to return home.

That was 50 years ago.

Today, individuals have access to high-quality inpatient care for acute conditions, and also to a full spectrum of evidence-based, intensive outpatient programs specifically designed to meet an individual’s unique needs.

As Princeton House celebrates 50 years of providing behavioral health care in Central New Jersey and beyond, the following offers a brief look into how treatment for mental health conditions at Princeton House has evolved over the past five decades and how attitudes toward mental illness are changing.

How has Princeton House grown since it opened in 1971?

Princeton House has grown from a 70-bed inpatient campus to a comprehensive behavioral healthcare provider with a wide range of evidence-based treatment programs for children, adolescents and adults struggling with mental health issues, substance use, or a combination of both.

Board-certified psychiatrists and skilled professionals provide acute care for patients at Princeton House’s 116-bed inpatient facility as well as intensive outpatient services at five locations throughout Central and Southern New Jersey.

Moreover, Princeton House offers inpatient eating disorders care at the 22-bed Princeton Center for Eating Disorders at Penn Medicine Princeton Medical Center and has a six-bed unit in the Emergency Department as well as an electroconvulsive therapy suite for both inpatient and outpatient care.

What specialty programs does Princeton House offer?

As behavioral healthcare has become more evidence-based and systematic in how it is delivered, Princeton House has expanded to offer more than a dozen specialty programs and tracks to meet unique developmental (child, adolescent, young adult, adult, older adult) diagnostic, and gender-related needs.

For example, Princeton House offers a variety of specialized services for women, including a Women’s Trauma and Addiction track and an Emotion Regulation track. Care is typically rooted in dialectical behavior therapy, which helps patients tolerate distress, regulate emotions, and interact effectively with others.

Following the success of the Women’s Program, Princeton House launched its Men’s Program to provide men who experienced traumatic events in their lives a safe, and trust-filled environment to share their experiences, learn from one another, and recover.

Another example is the Older Adult Program, which was one of the first specialty programs to be established at Princeton House. Older adults typically experience different life challenges than younger adults—for instance the death of a spouse or loved one, loss of independence—so it makes sense to have a program specifically for them.

Princeton House was also the first in New Jersey to provide specific inpatient addiction and mental health services to address the unique needs of first responders.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected people’s mental health and how did Princeton House respond?

Children being out of in-person school, people being isolated, financial challenges, and family members becoming ill and perhaps dying are all factors that can take a toll on mental health.

Studies have shown that stress and anxiety increased during the pandemic, but society is unlikely to fully understand the mental health fallout for months and even years.

In response to the pandemic, in late March 2020, Princeton House opened its virtual intensive outpatient program and has since provided more than 102,000 telehealth visits.

How have attitudes about mental health changed over the past 50 years?

Stigma around mental health disorders continues to exist, but there seems to be a broader acceptance that everyone struggles from time to time, and everyone needs some level of support at some time.

The language used to talk about mental health conditions is shifting, which can help address the stigma. For example, the most recent edition of the manual that experts use to diagnose mental health conditions replaces substance abuse disorder with substance use disorder. It is a small, but meaningful difference that takes the judgment out of the language.

Additionally, substance use programs are increasingly focused on harm reduction. For instance, under the harm reduction model, rather than expelling people from support programs if they relapse, there is instead a focus on helping people understand what happened and equipping them with the tools to get back on track.

It is more compassionate to try to meet the patient where they are, rather than judging where they aren’t.

When should someone seek help for a mental health issue?

While each mental health condition has its own set of symptoms, some common signs that your mental health may be suffering include:

• Excessive fear or worry
• Feeling excessively sad and crying regularly
• Confusion or problems concentrating and learning
• Extreme mood swings
• Anger and irritability
• Social isolation
• Overuse of alcohol or drugs
• Changes in sleeping and eating habits
• Trouble performing at work or school
• Thoughts of suicide

It’s important to recognize that your mental health is not automatic. You have to attend to it like you would your physical health. If you are concerned about your mental health, seek help.

For 50 years, Princeton House has been dedicated to advancing the mental health of the community, and it will continue to be a critical resource for patients and families across the region for decades to come.

For more information about Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health visit www.princetonhouse.org. Princeton House admissions clinicians can be reached at 888-437-1610.

Peter Thomas, PhD, specializes in clinical psychology and is the vice president of outpatient services at Penn Medicine Princeton House Behavioral Health.


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