People struggling with mental health issues now have a safe, supportive place to learn how to navigate life.

Blue Mountain Health System's Acute Partial Hospitalization program, housed in the newly renovated Blue Mountain Medical Plaza in Bowmanstown, is now accepting clients.

The program, which operates Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., is aimed at empowering those with depression, bipolar disorder, or other diagnosed mental illness to take back control of their lives.

Staffed by a psychiatrist, art and music therapists, a nurse practitioner, a licensed clinical social worker, a registered nurse, and a registrar, the program opened Jan. 4 and already helps eight people, with room for seven more, said Nancy Hersch, director of Behavioral Health for Blue Mountain.

The average length of treatment is about four weeks.

The program was created when administrators saw the need for follow-up services for those who had been released from BMHS's adult acute inpatient units, one at the Gnaden Huetten campus for those 18-54 and the other in Palmerton for those age 55 and older.

"When patients are treated in an in-patient psych unit, when it becomes time for discharge planning, we need to have somewhere for them to go," she said.

The options have included "step-down" units, rehabilitation, community-based case managers.

"But the resources are very sparse for mental health," Hersch said. "We wanted to provide a continuum of care for our patients from both units."

The program is also open to anyone with a diagnosis, not just those who were hospitalized at BMHS facilities. Clients can be referred by family physicians and other health care providers.

The program accepts Medicaid, Medicare and private and other insurances.

The partial hospitalization program is needed because in-patient stays are shorter than they used to be, and patients still need support after discharge.

The BMHS program is the "next step in their care," Hersch said.

"It's the same treatment as when they were inpatients, except they go home at night," she said.

Acute Partial Hospitalization Manager Mike Sucro said the program is based on what is known as the "recovery model." That means that instead of being told what to do, or having tasks done for them, clients are empowered to take control of their lives by making their own decisions and setting and meeting their own goals.

Clients entering the program immediately placed in groups, according to their needs, he said.

"There are different problem-specific groups: coping skills, independent living skills, healthy lifestyles. Then we have art therapy, music therapy," Sucro said.

"This is to give them the skills to manage symptoms on their own," he said.

The psychiatrist and nurse practitioner supervise the clients' medications, he said.

Hersch and Sucro believe the program will give clients the skills to steer their own ships in life through the rough waters of mental illness and its social stigma.

Hersch compared the reality of mental illness to physical maladies that require treatment.

"If you have high blood pressure, it means something is wrong with your heart. If you have diabetes, something is wrong with your pancreas. But if you have mental illness, because of the symptoms, there's a stigma," she said.

"Because if there is something wrong with your brain, you act differently. But that is a symptom of some kind of imbalance in the chemicals in your brain or some type of traumatic incident.

This is where your emotions come from. The brain is an organ just like any other," she said.

For more information, call Blue Mountain Health System at (610) 377-1300 or (610) 826-3141.