Sunday, July 18, 2010

When Two Worlds Collide

Fans of Jerry Seinfeld may remember the Seinfeld television episode when George tried and failed to keep his two worlds separate. Like George, I try to keep my two worlds apart. In my case, it is my elected official life in Plainfield and and professional life as Executive Director of Bridgeway Rehabilitation Services, Inc. A recent blog post by Assemblyman Jerry Green distorted my track record as a mental health professional and that of my employer, Bridgeway. To my Plainfield constituents - I wish to set the record straight.

Bridgeway Rehabilitation Services is a not for profit psychiatric rehabilitation service organization. We serve adults who have been diagnosed with serious mental illnesses, people whose psychiatric illnesses have been exacerbated by poverty and co-occurring substance abuse, chronic medical conditions and homelessness. Most of the people Bridgeway serves have spent time in state and local psychiatric in-patient units. State psychiatric hospitals are not humane environments and cost the taxpayer $180,000 per patient per year.

Bridgeway offers recovery, a new way of viewing and coping with serious mental illnesses. We offer a wrap around service that supports people to not only manage their symptoms and take their medications but to strive for a life worth living. That means working, going to school, having your own apartment and a circle of support comprised of family and friends - what everybody wants.

Bridgeway is part of a state-wide network of service providers who work with the state to help institutionalized people re-integrate into the community. Years ago it was believed that mental illness was a life sentence to be spent in an institution like Greystone Park or Trenton State Psychiatric Hospital. As treatment improved, it was believed that people could live in the community but in a group home or boarding house like the Park Hotel. Group homes cost the taxpayer $65,000 per year per resident and up. Today we've taken a big step further because the research clearly demonstrates that most people with serious mental illnesses can live independently with flexible supports. This approach, called supportive housing, is what Bridgeway specializes in.

Supportive housing costs the taxpayers $10,000 to $30,000 per year per person, depending on the complexity of the needs of the person served. Supportive housing as done by Bridgeway, is scattered site. That means each person has his/her own apartment and they are not clustered or in a congregate housing arrangement. Unlike the Park Hotel or a group home, that is true community integration. Bridgeway serves 1500 people each year, spanning 8 counties in central and northern New Jersey. Over 90% are in supportive housing. Some live with their families and a few live in places like the Park Hotel. We offer them the opportunity to move out into a more independent living arrangement. It's their choice.

Bridgeway believes choice is critical for service recipients and it is maximized by helping people find apartments in the existing rental market. That means properties are not taken off the tax rolls. The only exception Bridgeway made was when we purchased 4 two bedroom condomiums in Union County and 1 three bedroom house in Hunterdon County for use by our service recipients. To maximize choice, we did not purchase in the two urban centers, Elizabeth and Plainfield, because we felt that more living opportunities should be created in suburban areas. And those condo properties were taken off the tax rolls (Elizabeth and Plainfield were clearly doing more than their share to assist people with disabilities).

Supportive housing works because Bridgeway offers multi-disciplinary service teams that are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to come out for home visits. One of these teams is based in Plainfield and rents office space on East Front Street. Most Plainfield residents are unaware of this because our community integration approach is working.

Bridgeway was recognized as mental health agency of the year in 2007 by our trade association, NJ Association of Mental Health Agencies, representing over 160 organizations. I was recognized as psychiatric rehabilitation agency director of the year in 2008 by the U.S. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Association.

Although Bridgeway is prominent in its field, Bridgeway and its service recipients are virtually invisible in the community and that is a good thing, considering the stigma that comes with mental illness. People with mental illnesses deserve the opportunity to become productive members of our communities and do not deserve to be stigmatized, especially by elected officials with political agendas.