Treating more coronavirus patients than any other health care system in New Jersey, Hackensack Meridian Health has been at the epicenter of the fight against COVID 19 since March 2020. But the network’s treatment of this nationwide pandemic has extended well beyond patients who presented traditional symptoms of the virus and garnered positive nasopharyngeal swab results. Clinical experts at HMH have also shifted their therapies to properly and effectively manage the mental health toll of this illness.

“Stress, anxiety, fear, and uncertainty can and have taken over during this prolonged period of the pandemic,” noted Donald J. Parker, a licensed clinical social worker and president of Behavioral Health Care Transformation Services and Integrative Medicine at Hackensack Meridian Health.

“In 2019 it was found that nearly one in five U.S. adults live with mental illness. In 2020, one in four adults required assistance.”

“Fear of the virus can be overwhelming in and of itself, but when you add economic and social insecurities coupled with the loneliness of the quarantine, it’s more than just a perfect storm, it’s a tsunami,” Parker continued. “All of the routines we’ve developed in life were turned upside down and the small moments we once had that allowed us to go on autopilot and enabled the brain to recover from stress driving to work, socializing at a restaurant or other public venue were suddenly non existent. In 2019 it was found that nearly one in five U.S. adults live with mental illness. In 2020, one in four adults required assistance.”

To combat this trend, HMH focused internally on the mental health of its front line caregivers creating “Even Heroes Need to Recharge,” an extension of Hackensack’s Employee Assistance Program. The new program established a comprehensive one stop shop for mental health, emotional, spiritual, and other resources available to any of their team members.


The use of telemedicine for psychiatric care also increased dramatically at HMH over the past year. Telehealth visits, which were minimal in 2019, soared to more than 36,000 in the first nine months of 2020, an astonishing trend in use and acceptance of the service as patients sought remote care from the safety of their homes.

“One silver lining of this horrible pandemic was how it catapulted several advancements in behavioral health,” noted Dr. Gary Small, behavioral health physician in chief for the Hackensack Meridian Health network.

Dr. Small, who oversees all professional and administrative activities within the behavioral health care transformation service at HMH, also serves as chair of psychiatry at Hackensack University Medical Center.

“HMH very quickly transitioned to a successful telehealth model that is appealing to many of our patients. Clearly, face to face interactions have a strong psychological, emotional, and social impact, but we are fortunate to have access to technologies that allow us to continue to provide behavioral health care during this very challenging pandemic. I expect that even after we get through this crisis we will continue with a hybrid model of mental health care delivery that blends in person treatment with telehealth therapy.”

Hackensack Meridian Health also launched the region’s first walk in urgent care center with behavioral health services in the months leading up to COVID 19’s appearance. Located adjacent to Jersey Shore University Medical Center in Neptune, the Hackensack Meridian Urgent Care with Behavioral Health is a traditional urgent care treating minor illnesses such as fevers and flu, upper respiratory infections, sprains, and strains, but it also offers expanded services to address mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and mood disorders for patients 16 years and older. The urgent care with behavioral health also offers same day telehealth visits so physicians can provide care beyond the local area.

And one of the most exciting developments in HMH’s behavioral health division was the launch of the network’s Retreat & Recovery at Ramapo Valley in February 2021. A provider of outpatient substance use treatment services, the Retreat & Recovery facility has expanded the network’s industry leading portfolio of behavioral health resources within the state of New Jersey. Located in Mahwah, Retreat & Recovery at Ramapo Valley is driven by the philosophy that all individuals are unique and therefore recover in a multitude of ways. The center joins Blake Recovery Center, located on the campus of Carrier Clinic in Belle Mead, in the healthcare system’s roster of substance use recovery services.

“The care model here focuses on the integration of traditional therapy, evidence based practices, and integrative medicine to provide a modern, comprehensive approach to individualized care,” noted Parker, who also serves as CEO of Carrier Clinic, which operates an acute care mental health hospital, a residential treatment center for adolescents, a fully accredited special needs school for students grades 7 through 12, and the Blake Recovery Center an inpatient unit focused on addiction recovery. Carrier’s new Healing Campus has broken down many of the barriers often faced by patients with long term mental illness.

“Carrier’s unique Healing Campus combines patient designed care in unison with community based initiatives,” said Parker.

Born of a farm based, grassroots initiative, the Healing Center now encompasses animal therapy 22 peacocks, two equine therapy trained horses, and several donkeys, goats, hens, and turkeys, all located on the Carrier Clinic campus, providing therapeutic benefits to the patients. And there are more advancements. A newly introduced healing arts program encourages participants to convey their emotions on canvas, and the network is making use of virtual reality to simulate social situations and other events that trigger a patient’s anxiety and depression.

“We use virtual reality to help patients navigate social challenges and offer them real time advice,” noted Parker. “It’s a tool that really brings life to a person’s anxiety and allows us to properly diagnose and treat. Many are worried about technology’s negative impact on socialization but in this setting it is creating enormous opportunity for healing.”

Calling mental illness the most prolific and oft misunderstood chronic disease, Parker said the Healing Center is helping to expunge the stigma attached to it. “For decades citizens with mental health concerns have been warehoused away from the local population,” he noted. “Driven by stigma, lack of understanding, and marginalized resources, these patients have been isolated further in facilities separated from the community. e continuum of care has been disjointed but our newest programs and therapies are working to correct that problem.”

Dr. Small agrees and is working to increase the network’s research efforts.

“HMH has built a strong clinical background in behavioral health and I look forward to increasing our research presence,” noted Dr. Small, who spent the better part of his career working with geriatric patients, building a research program at UCLA that introduced innovations in early detection, treatment, and prevention of age related memory loss, Alzheimer’s disease, and other forms of dementia.

Co-inventor of the first brain PET scan that can visualize the physical evidence of Alzheimer’s in living patients, he was recruited by HMH last year to help build a stronger research portfolio for the network. Deeply invested in the development and use of innovation and technology in his field, he is optimistic about the future of behavioral health.

“Our strong HMH clinical programs provide a unique opportunity to develop a clinical trial network throughout the north, south, and central regions of New Jersey,” he said. “I look forward to developing a larger research platform for evaluating novel diagnostic methods and treatments. HMH is poised for growth and innovation, and I am excited to help lead this burgeoning organization into the future.”

Hackensack Meridian Integrative Health & Medicine
732.263.7999 / hackensackmeridianhealth.org