Members of Catholic Charities Diocese of Trenton’s new Behavioral Health Consumer Advisory Council pose for a photo. From left, Patrick Reilly and Jean Furdella, co-chairs, and Wilson Bagley, peer support specialist.  Catholic Charities photo

Members of Catholic Charities Diocese of Trenton’s new Behavioral Health Consumer Advisory Council pose for a photo. From left, Patrick Reilly and Jean Furdella, co-chairs, and Wilson Bagley, peer support specialist.  Catholic Charities photo

By Dubravka Kolumbic-Cortese | Correspondent

Each year, Catholic Charities Diocese of Trenton provides more than 100,000 adults, families and children with a variety of mental health services dealing with everything from addiction to domestic violence, regardless of their religious affiliations.

These consumers will soon have a forum for communicating their experiences with those services and helping shape future services thanks to the CCDoT’s new Behavioral Health Consumer Advisory Council. The council is part of an initiative by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to gather information from behavioral health clients across the country in order to determine the most effective courses of treatment and services.

“Our consumers are now given a voice, on a state level and on a national level, for public health policy, and new policy health initiatives,” said Susan Loughery, CCDoT’s director of operations.

“It’s an opportunity to test integrated care and to look at it from the perspective of the whole client, the whole patient, the whole health care consumer and to identify what works, what doesn’t and what are areas of improvement in the system,” Loughery explained. “A huge component of it is getting our clients’ perspective on how they see the system working out.”

Loughery said the initiative is the first of its magnitude and that she was confident the organization was up to the task.

“Catholic Charities Trenton has been the first at a lot of cutting-edge models,” she said. “There’s never been a fear of taking on something new and to learn something new and go that extra mile. All the fundamentals were there to make this a success.”

New Opportunities

The CCDoT has been working on this project for the past two years, in conjunction with the federal agencies, and at the state level with the N.J. Department of Human Services divisions of Mental Health and Addiction Services, and the Department of Health.

“Catholic Charities Diocese of Trenton was selected to partner with the state of New Jersey as one of only seven agencies in the state and 76 across the country doing certified community behavioral health clinics,” Loughery said.

The council officially kicked off in July and is being funded by grant monies. Patrick Reilly, an attorney with more than 40 years’ experience as a public health advocate, will serve as council co-chair, along with Jean Furdella, Catholic Charities Trenton compliance director. Reilly most recently served as director of the Division of Mental Health Advocacy for the state Public Defender’s Office.

“It’s been a lot of work and a lot of commitment from many, many different individuals,” Loughery said. “It’s a huge opportunity for us to give a voice to our consumers who are in need of that voice, particularly now.”

Furdella and Reilly are gathering applications for the council and expect to have the first official meeting in October. The council will be composed of a rotating group of members, including about 15 consumers and family members, staff and board members, and will meet quarterly, reporting their findings to the board of trustees, who will then relay that information to the state and federal levels.

Furdella, Catholic Charities Trenton’s point person for consumer advocacy and consumer concerns, was chosen for her credibility with the consumers, who, she said, “sometimes get overlooked.”

“She does a lot of work with the clients,” Loughery said. “In terms of the client grievance procedure, she’s our lead there, and so there’s a lot of comfort with clients in working with her. She understands the broader scope of the data and what we need to provide to the state and the feds on the outcomes for the committee.”

Furdella said CCDoT does survey their clients about the services they’ve received, but, she pointed out, “A lot of people don’t like to take surveys. This way, we have a group of consumers across the agency that will really take a look at what we’re doing and give us some feedback. It’s just a great opportunity for improvement.”

Consumer Input

Reilly, of St. Catharine-St. Margaret Parish, Spring Lake, recently approached a CCDoT board member looking for volunteer work. As a result of his extensive work as a public health advocate, he was asked to co-chair the council.

“The council is here to speak up for the people who, too, are too shy, or too quiet to speak up for themselves if things are going wrong, and also, for the good things that are happening,” Reilly said.

He said the council hopes to draw a cross section of clients and their family members, including those who may have already graduated from the programs, especially the juvenile programs. Selection will conducted via blind applications.

Reilly said the council’s role may also include finding services in the community that aren’t currently part of Catholic Charities but that could be part of its treatment plan, as well as being a spokesperson for those who might be hesitant to speak openly or participate on the council. He pointed to the council’s goal of discovering what works, as well as what needs attention.

“Consumer input has slowly but surely been getting more and more,” Reilly said, “and this is just another advancement.”

Reilly, who had eight years of Jesuit training, said the council’s mission speaks to the basic Biblical teaching of, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

According to Reilly, consumer-run advocacy councils show “a lot of respect. This shows them that yes, we believe you, we respect your opinions.”