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QUEENSBURY -- Soeren Ravn and his colleagues from Denmark were happy to be visiting America.

"I’ve grown up with your music, with your movies and with your jeans," he said.

Ravn is one of five Denmark researchers who spent last week studying methods at Voice of the Heart, a nontraditional mental health program in Queensbury that emphasizes interaction with peers instead of hospitalization.

The researchers are part of Denmark government-funded project studying ways to improve mental health care in their country. They were referred to Voices of the Heart through another U.S. organization.

Voices of the Heart is a nonprofit that focuses on providing support through counseling, conversation and social interaction to encourage people to get help before they reach crisis, or to help them avoid hospitalization when they are in crisis.

Among its services is a "peer respite program" in Hudson Falls, essentially a two-bedroom apartment where people in crisis can stay and receive support.

It is one of only two such respite programs in New York and only nine in the nation, said Daniel Hazen, executive director of Voices of the Heart.

People typically stay anywhere from three to 15 days at the local respite house, which is funded with a $283,000 annual state grant and about $17,000 in local charitable contributions.

The respite program provides services for about $250 per person per day, compared with $1,200 to $1,400 if the same person went to a hospital, Hazen told the state Medicaid Redesign Team at a hearing earlier this year.

The hospital estimate includes the cost of ambulance transportation, an emergency room visit and an overnight stay.

In Denmark, typically the first time a counselor meets with a patient is in the hospital, said Ravn, one of the researchers.

"We could do this in Denmark as well. We should do this in Denmark as well," Hansson said.

The researchers said that while they like American culture, they prefer the health care financing model in Denmark, where people pay higher taxes but have free treatment.

"And here I see a difference between the rich and the poor, not in the street, but in the mental health system," said researcher Anette Lind.

Yet Denmark can learn a lot about the "peer support" methods used by Voices of the Heart, which operates in Warren and Washington counties, the researchers said.

"They have this special approach, this natural approach connecting the people," said researcher Birgitte Hansson.

Hazen said he and the Voices of the Heart staff learned from the Denmark researchers as well.

"The joke is that we work, work, work — and sometimes we just need to stop and breathe," he said.

This week Hazen will travel to the University of North Carolina to speak about the program’s methods at a symposium of the Foundation for Excellence in Mental Health Care.


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