A Life Outside Springfield

September 08, 1993

During his six years as superintendent of Springfield Hospital Center, Dr. Bruce Hershfield improved conditions and programs at the state's largest public psychiatric hospital. He added innovative programs, reduced the number of patients and took action to ensure that the Sykesville hospital did not lose its accreditation. What's more, he accomplished this during a freeze on hiring and staff salaries.

Yet Dr. Hershfield's most important achievement may have to do with preparing mentally ill people to live in the community outside Springfield's grassy expanses.

In a recent interview with Mary Gail Hare of The Sun's Carroll County Bureau, Dr. Hershfield, who will be leaving Springfield on Sept. 17, made some important points about the nature of mental illness that bear repeating, particularly because these are some of the most misunderstood diseases today.

Contrary to the popular images developed in the movies and television dramas, most people suffering from severe mental illness -- schizophrenia, manic depression and severe depression are not homicidal maniacs.

Except for a minority of patients, these ill people generally pose more danger to themselves than to the community at large. When untreated, most of them are confused, irrational, subject to hallucinations and incapable of making the day-to-day decisions necessary to feed, clothe and shelter themselves.

Thanks to advances in neuropharmacology, medicine can now be used to suppress some of the aberrant behavior and reduce the need for institutionalization.

During the past two decades, patients from mental hospitals have been released into the community in much greater numbers. Many have been able to adjust and fit into community life. Others have not and have become part of the horde of homeless wandering the streets of America.

To his credit, Dr. Hershfield has developed a program at Springfield that prepares stabilized patients to return to the community. This is a good start, but a more intensive monitoring effort is needed to ensure that deinstitutionalized patients are coping in the outside world.

Even though Dr. Hershfield is devoting his time to his private practice in Baltimore County, we hope he continues to play a role in improving the care and treatment of Maryland's mentally ill. He's already made a big contribution.

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