For far too long, hospital rooms for those undergoing treatment for mental illness have fallen short of looking like the healing environments they are supposed to be.
Dated, dingy and cramped, with institutional decor Nurse Ratched might have designed, these facilities seemed mired in the distant era that inspired Ken Kesey to write "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." While hospitals have long since upgraded maternity wards and children's areas, wards devoted to mental care often still feature double rooms and little extra space, even though patients typically are not bedbound and need quiet time to heal.
Facilities that seem like an afterthought unfortunately reinforce rather than fight the regrettable stigma that still accompanies mental illness. But a new, compassionately designed eight-story addition to the Regions Hospital campus in St. Paul is helping usher in a new era of mental-health treatment in Minnesota and elsewhere -- one in which the quality of the facility equals the level of care and commitment provided by the staff.
The $36 million facility, which opened last week and is focused on adults, isn't the first overhaul of hospital-based mental-health facilities in Minnesota. Hennepin County Medical Center and the University of Minnesota Medical Center, Fairview, also have done noteworthy renovations. Amplatz Children's Hospital also has an renovation of pediatric mental-health facilities underway.
The Regions facility, however, is believed to be one of the largest private investments in a project like this in Minnesota in years, and may well be nationally as well. The American Hospital Association does not keep statistics, but projects of similar scope appear to be uncommon. Along with the other renovated facilities in the Twin Cities, the opening solidifies Minnesota's leading role nationally in permanently raising the standard of care for this long-overlooked group of patients.
Patients and staff excitedly began moving into the new facility at the HealthPartners-operated Regions late last week. The difference between the old and new facilities could not be more striking. The old facility was erected nearly 50 years ago as a nurses' dormitory -- and still looked like it, with its double rooms and shared bathrooms. "It wasn't right,'' said Regions CEO Brock Nelson, who worked with HealthPartners CEO Mary Brainerd to make this project a priority.
The new facility is a spacious 115,000 square feet. Inside are 100 single rooms with desks, windows and warm-wood-style floors. There are rooms to gather with family, a large exercise room, an airy ground-floor porch, and a thoughtfully designed partial-hospitalization facility for those not needing 24-hour care. Individual floors feature "quiet rooms" to which anxious patients can retreat. Tom Geskermann, Regions' vice president of operations, also noted with a grin that recreation areas on each floor are spacious enough to accommodate both Vikings and Packers fans who want to watch their teams on TV.
The new facility also spurred Regions to think through and improve the ways it delivers care. Food and warm blankets are offered to patients on arrival. There's improved access to physicians, and care for those with other serious conditions can often be done without leaving the facility. Staff turnovers are done in a way to minimize patient anxiety. In addition, staff members across the hospital underwent training on reducing the stigma still linked to mental-health care.
"They turned over every rock -- they thought about everything,'' said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Abderholden was part of a patient and community advisory group that offered extensive feedback on the facility.
The business case for investing in mental health care facilities is slowly improving with the expansion of insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act, as well as new laws requiring "parity" of coverage for plans that provide this care. Still, mental health lags other care areas from an institutional, return-on-investment standpoint.
That's why the new Regions buildings, and the other improvements made at Twin Cities hospitals, represent Minnesota's health care leadership at its best. Twenty-five percent of Americans develop a mental illness or a substance-abuse disorder each year, according to the American Hospital Association. About 2 million people a year are discharged from hospitals after being treated for mental illness.
Making sure that the facilities not only are available but also enhance recovery is simply the right thing to do.