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Berkshire Medical Center Renovates Mental Health Units

Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield, Mass. is in the midst of a $4.5 million overhaul of its mental health units.Wood floors, natural light and soft colors are apparent when you walk through the doors of Jones II at Berkshire Medical Center. The 20-bed space is a locked unit, but all admissions are voluntary. Berkshire Health Systems plans to open the restored unit October 20th. It’s the first major restoration in roughly two decades. Psychiatric department chair Dr. Alex Sabo explains how the features aid in mental care.

“Most of the illnesses that we treat have an element of the ‘fight-flight’ system being turned on,” Sabo said. “So whether you have schizophrenia and you’re suffering from a psychosis or mania or depression the adrenaline system of the body and the brain is turned on which makes people fearful, skittish and edgy. So anything you can do to increase greater comfort from the environment is going to act like than an additional almost pharmacologic agent to help calm person, safer and nurtured.”

Technology upgrades include a series of cameras covering all entrances and common areas along with climate controls for each room. Anti-ligature sensors on top of patient bathroom doors trigger alarms and flashing lights similar to ones on an emergency vehicle direct staff to the proper room.

“If somebody were having an acute attack like paranoia or ‘I have to die right now’ – they might be hearing voices to telling them to do something like that and they lock themselves in the room or push the beds up against the door you could just pull that door right off and open it the other way,” explained Sabo. “So that you could go in and save the person.”

Sabo says a quarter of Americans have some type of mental disorder. A report from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health finds suicide rates increased 42 percent from 2003 to 2012 to 9.4 suicides for every 100,000 persons. In fiscal 2013, there were nearly 7,200 emergency room visits for self-inflicted injuries. Sabo says historically suicides increase as the economy worsens.

The average stay for people at Jones II is six days during which patients receive intensive evaluation for psychiatric, medical and emotional needs. The unit typically operates with 14 patients.

“I definitely say it’s going to help us make sure our staff and the patients that we have coming in are both safe,”  said Rob Crossman, a registered nurse at Jones II. “We really try to make a community atmosphere, but also maintaining that independence for people. So a lot of these updates will help make sure everything stays safe, that there aren’t any issues on the floors and no issues between patients. That way it’s a very nice therapeutic milieu.”

Renovations will begin shortly on Jones III, which is designed as a 15-bed involuntary unit.  Work is expected to be completed by the end of January. Sabo says the units’ openness and common areas assist in the therapeutic efforts.

“This kind of alliance with our patients to have them be our co-investigator in their own care,” Sabo described. “A facility like this really just adds to that.”

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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