5 questions for... Dr. John Santopietro, Silver Hill Hospital’s new president
Updated 4:14 pm, Tuesday, October 10, 2017
NEW CANAAN — Dr. John Santopietro has only served in his role as president and medical director at Silver Hill Hospital for a little over three weeks, but he already feels at home.
The Rhode Island native grew up working at his grandfather’s fish market in an Italian family that liked to talk through their problems. This, combined with a grade school education at a Quaker school in Providence that encouraged introspection, inspired an early interest in psychiatry. Santopietro left Rhode Island to study at Yale University, then attended Northwestern University Medical School and completed his internship, residency and fellowship at Harvard Medical School.
He comes to Silver Hill after a stint in Charlotte, N.C., where he served as chief clinical officer of behavioral health at Carolinas HealthCare System, which served 2.3 million patients each year.
The size of Silver Hill — the hospital has 129 beds, though not all are filled — and the opportunity to get to know the staff and patients are just two of the reasons Santopietro is excited about his new role in New Canaan.
Q: How are you settling in?
A: This is day 21. It’s going really well. I’m really happy to be here and we’re really excited to be back in Connecticut. My wife is from Windsor and I’m actually from Rhode Island but we lived in Bolton for a number of years.
I’m at a point in my career where I know what I really want. This is a perfect place for me because it both treats a high number of people — 3,000 people come through here a year — and because we provide extraordinarily high-quality treatment, which is the key. I wish that everybody had access to that high-quality treatment. These days, as it happens, in this country, it’s not that easy
to get the high-quality treatment that people deserve.
Q: What are some of the challenges to providing mental health care?
A: I’m a psychiatrist and have been doing this for about 20 years. I’ve had the opportunity to work in a variety of different settings in the system, in part because I wanted to know what is out there. I’ve also devoted my career to making systems better and improving mental health care for people who are suffering, because our mental health system in general is kind of broken. The good news is I think we’re doing a better job in the past five or 10 years with more and more people talking about it, as a country.
Unfortunately, some of that came up because of the steady drum beat of national tragedies, Sandy Hook being one example. So that has got it into the public mind a little bit. But more than that, I think millennials don’t have the hang ups that other generations have. They’re seeing mental health as a part of overall health.
Q: You worked last in Charlotte in a role that dealt with much higher numbers of people. What was your experience there?
A: That was a part of the system I hadn’t seen yet.
My last role was at Carolinas HealthCare System. I was in charge of the service line of behavioral health across the entire Carolinas HealthCare System, which is one of the largest not-for-profit health care systems in the country. It’’s a $9 billion system that treats 2.3 million patients a year in three states. There are 40 hospitals, 900 care locations and 60,000 employees. I had never experienced something like that. It was really exciting to be able to impact that many lives.
In five years, we were able to invest significantly in behavioral health and show an overall impact on the community.
But 2.3 million patients was little too much for me.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish during your time here?
A: So the caveat is this is my 21st day. My priority is to get to know the people. There are 300 people working here. Where I was before there were 1,000 people. It’s really hard to know 1,000 people by name.
It is very achievable and I look forward to knowing everyone here by name and as people.
Priority number one: Get to know the people and get to know Silver Hill and the way we do things.
Priority number two: I’m really excited to tell the story of Silver Hill in, perhaps, a larger way. I have been lucky to have done a lot of work nationally in different areas of mental health and I’d like to use that voice to amplify the amazing work that goes on here. A, so people get recognized for it. B, so that we say to the rest of the country, ‘This is what care should be’ and encourage them to do that as well.
Q: Silver Hill recently started programs for eating disorders and opioid addiction. Why is it important to address these issues that have emerged more recently?
A. One of the other things that attracted me to Silver Hill is that, being in the business for a while, I’m very sensitive to when treatment centers will lean in to the difficult things out there or will not. And this is a place that has consistently leaned in.
Eating disorders are some of the most difficult disorders to treat and some of the most deadly. Silver Hill hasn’t been afraid of it. For opioids, even before the crisis, they were an issue, but especially with the crisis, we’re not going to shy away from it. It’s a program that is absolutely needed locally, statewide, regionally.
I love when the press tells the story of mental health and illness. Frankly, I don’t think it’s overstating it to say that by doing so you save lives. Of all the people with mental illness in the country today — 60 million — only 40 percent of them are getting any treatment and only about 10 percent of them are getting good treatment. Why? Number one barrier is stigma.
Every time you tell a story about mental health and that there is help out there and that you should seek help, you’re saving lives.