Program aims to boost fitness of mentally ill

Drug maker teams with hospital in effort to close a health gap

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

By ANGELA STEWART Star-Ledger Staff

The physical health of people with severe and persistent mental illness should receive more attention as a result of a new program launched yesterday promoting lifestyle and behavioral changes in this vulnerable population.

Pathways for Wellness is an interactive computer software program developed by officials from University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey University Behavioral HealthCare in conjunction with pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Company.

The software is designed as an easy-to-use tool for mental health professionals, who will be able to start a meaningful discussion with their clients about their physical health problems. Patients who do not have a primary care physician can be linked to one using the software.

According to UMDNJ officials, Pathways to Wellness was created to help bridge the gap between physical and mental health.

"Many behavioral health professional have been trained to address people from the neck up. We are getting people to pay attention to the whole person," said Betty Vreeland, program manager at UMDNJ University Behavioral HealthCare's Center for Excellence in Piscataway, where yesterday's news conference was held.

On average, people with mental illness die 8 to 20 years sooner than someone without a psychiatric problem, Vreeland said.

Diabetes, obesity, substance abuse and heart disease have been identified in studies as some of the most important and under-addressed physical health concerns faced by people with mental illness. Many in this population also smoke.

Serious, disabling conditions suffered by people with mental illness include schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness. In New Jersey, about 160,000 people are living with severe and persistent mental illness, according to Alan Kaufman, director of the New Jersey Division of Mental Health Services.

Kaufman called the development of the Pathways to Wellness program "important," saying it will provide mental health professionals with the tools and strategies they need to deal with what has been a difficult issue.

"Thousands will have a chance to improve their health and quality of life," agreed Chris Kosseff, president and CEO of University Behavioral HealthCare.

Pathways to Wellness grew out of a partnership UMDNJ formed with Eli Lilly three years ago to train mental health professionals in the psycho-social aspect of caring for people with mental illness. Organizations apply for the free training and are permitted to send up to four of their staff members to the training sessions, the cost of which is underwritten by Eli Lilly. To date, more than 175 organizations from 40 states have applied.

Training for Pathways to Wellness is just getting off the ground, and applications are still being accepted for training. Hagedorn Psychiatric Hospital in Glen Gardner is one of the facilities already signed up, along with out-of-state facilities including the Wyoming State Hospital and Midtown Mental Health Center of Memphis, Tenn.

Page designs for the new program will allow professionals to enter basic demographic information on their clients and calculate their risk assessment in areas like coronary artery disease. Clients are also provided with feedback on what changes they can make to improve their health --things like eating less fat or discarding their cigarettes through a smoking cessation program.

"I'm trying to stay away from junk food and eat more fruits and vegetables," said Patty, 47, of Edison, a client of UMDNJ Behavioral HealthCare who asked that her last name not be used.

Edward Kim, medical director of University Behavioral HealthCare, said the idea is to integrate the software program into "normal therapeutic dialogue" in a fashion that that is non-threatening to both the professional and the client. From the demographic information entered through the software program, a letter can then be generated to a primary care doctor with the client's permission, outlining their health concerns and listing any psychiatric medication he or she may be taking.

Bert van den Bergh, who heads up Neuroscience Products for Eli Lilly, called Pathways to Wellness an innovation "that can be applied on a massive scale."

"Partnerships that work are rare," he said.

Angela Stewart writes about healthcare. She can be reached by e-mail at astewart@starledger.com or at 973 392-4178.