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St. Luke’s to expand psychiatric care at Quakertown hospital amid ongoing mental health crisis

Morning Call - 8/16/2022

In response to the ongoing need for more mental health services, St. Luke’s University Health Network is set to almost double the number of inpatient psychiatric beds at its Quakertown campus.

The new adult behavioral health unit will have 32 beds in total, an increase of 13 beds. Once the new Quakertown unit opens in early 2023, St. Luke’s will have a total of 202 inpatient psychiatric beds across its network, a St. Luke’s news release states.

“And this feels particularly timely, given the surge in mental health issues created by the pandemic,” said Christina Zelko Bennick, St. Luke’s vice president of patient care services.

This new expansion to the Quakertown campus is part of an ongoing four-year effort by St. Luke’s to build new behavioral health units or renovate existing ones. Renovations and construction have also occurred at the network’s Lehighton, Sacred Heart and Easton campuses. The network opened an adolescent behavioral health unit at its Easton campus in January.

The network has also made partial expansions for its adult and adolescent behavioral health programs, implemented a psychiatry resident program, started providing school-based therapy services, opened a detox unit at its Sacred Heart campus, and plans to open a walk-in crisis center at the Lehighton campus later this summer. The network also debuted its addiction recovery program S.H.A.R.E in March.

The United States and Lehigh Valley have an ongoing mental crisis and the number of people experiencing mental illness and mental health challenges increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the release, Zelko Bennick said a number of factors, including prolonged social isolation, increased substance use and economic uncertainties, as well as national and international unrest, have contributed to worsening mental health problems.

Dr. James A. James III, the interim chairperson of psychiatry and behavioral health for St. Luke’s, said for years there has been a growing need for mental health services everywhere.

“With COVID-19 and the reverberations felt in our communities during the pandemic, many services were curtailed or paused,” he said. “Resources and staffing became challenging and innovative ways to connect with those in our community were pursued. But those innovations have not been adequate compared to the reductions in services, strain on the mental health systems and services across the state of our communities.”

Those with mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders are incarcerated at disproportionately high rates in the U.S. The state of Pennsylvania has been sued by the American Civil Liberties Union on more than one occasion because of the large number of incarcerated persons with mental illness in the state.

Some efforts were made in the Lehigh Valley to address ongoing mental health issues, especially within the criminal legal system, before the pandemic. In 2015, Northampton County began a mental health court program, and in 2018, the county also received funds from the state to create an eight-bed mental health center for incarcerated people in the county.

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