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In a challenging time for mental health treatment, the Brookline Center tries to chart a new course

Brookline Center leaders meet. From left to right, chief of staff Shellee Robbins, chief of strategic partnerships and innovation James Drake and chief executive officer Ian Lang. Photo by Artemisia Luk
March 5, 2024

Faced with soaring demand in the wake of the pandemic and a pool of providers that’s not growing nearly as quickly, the Brookline Center for Community Mental Health has launched a new initiative aimed at reimagining how it delivers services.

The center, which sees nearly 1,500 patients a year and employs around 125 staff, has tried to keep up with the strain on its capacity by taking actions such as redesigning its intake process, says CEO Ian Lang. But with its new Innovation Institute, it’s also trying something different and bigger.

“At a certain point, we said ‘wait a second.’ We can’t solve this by just doing more of the same. We can only solve this if we start thinking very differently about the way care is provided,” Lang said in a recent interview.

The Institute has the goal of designing, testing and ultimately scaling new approaches to behavioral health to try to address the broader systems that have broken down.

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“When you start to think about it from the perspective of resource allocation, how does the system work for everybody? The way we focus healthcare does not do a very good job of that. It incents people with means,” Lang said.

Funded by two million-dollar donations from family foundations, the Lodish Family Foundation and the Tower Foundation, the institute’s approaches include early detection and multidisciplinary teams. According to the center’s website, the institute “seeks to change the fundamentals of the system itself, aiming to transform systems of care by changing where care is delivered, how we provide care, and who provides care.”

Projects include:

  • Collaborative Care, a pilot program that is embedding mental and behavioral health specialists in pediatric clinics to try to identify and treat mental health issues in children sooner.
  • CEDAR, which the center says is a “one-of-a-kind coordinated specialty care treatment model for young people at risk for psychotic illness or experiencing psychosis-like symptoms.”
  • Bridge for Resilient Youth in Transition (BRYT), a school-based “bridge” program that provides staffing, space and services to help students experiencing mental health crises.

Higher tech solutions may be in the institute’s future work, too.

Brookline resident Harvey Lodish – a biologist and biotech founder who donated $1 million for the initiative along with his wife Pamela Lodish, a center board member – sees possibilities in harnessing technology such as video games and artificial intelligence.

Lodish said that he was intrigued by the project when he found out that clinical trials, for years a major part of his own research, weren’t common in the mental health space.

“The way in which one validates therapeutics are double-blind clinical trials,” he said. “I started hearing about some of these devices and websites and so on that are supposedly useful for treating mental illness and they simply haven’t been tested.”

Lodish said he hopes AI and natural language processing will be some of what the center studies.

“Can you get a robot to offer mental health treatments at 2 in the morning?” he said. “I think the notion was we’re not ready for it. But at some point we will be and someone needs to take it from God knows where and bring it into the community and see if it works.”

Pamela Lodish said she hopes the model that they’re building can grow beyond the town’s borders.

“I hope that we’ve launched something that’s meaningful and successful. And then I would like to be able to help other communities set up similar programs. Because really, that’s what you want. You don’t want to just be able to serve more people in Brookline,” she said.