Institute of Living Psychiatrist-in-Chief Harold (Hank) Schwartz, MD, is known for speaking his mind, transforming the Institute of Living during a time of crisis, speaking out against the Catholic Church during the priest abuse scandal and his work following the Sandy Hook massacre.
But there is a lot more to Hank Schwartz. In a recent interview prior to him stepping down from his leadership role Oct. 1, Dr. Schwartz talked about his adolescent and young adult years, his early career and what he will remember most during his 29-year career with Hartford Hospital, the Institute of Living and the Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network.
Dr. Schwartz was born in Brooklyn, living in the modest Quonset Huts, which were post-World War II housing for returning GI’s. He then moved to Queens, where he grew up in middle income housing project, before spending a short time on Great Neck, Long Island.
In his junior high, high school and even college years, he had interest in acting. He was a theater and television major in college, and performed in well-known places such as the New York Shakespeare festival in Central Park and Summer Stock in Delaware.
But by the time he graduated from college, he wanted to be in media and broadcasting. He started working for a consulting company and then as a writer for CBS radio.
“I really kind of bumped around early on,” he said.
By the time he was in his early to mid-20s, he was dissatisfied with where his career was going, and decided to go to medical school, most likely influenced by mind and body trends at the time, as well as the fact that his stepfather was a surgeon and his family had always longed for him to take an interest in medicine.
He was older than typical students and had to take two more years of pre-med classes. He was then admitted to the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. Even as early as medical school, he showed an interest in a medical leadership position when he met with the associate dean of students.
He vacillated between internal medicine and psychiatry, but eventually psychiatry won over. He developed an interest while still in medical school and his residency about the interface between psychiatry, law, ethics and public policy. He started doing research and published his first peer-reviewed articles, which to this day number nearly 100. In addition, he also published columns, letters to the editor, op-eds, blogs, edited volumes, chapters in books, essays and other writings.
He was also regularly quoted as a media expert locally, statewide and nationally in print, radio and television.
Following his residency, he also did a fellowship in forensic psychiatry.
“That’s always been an interest of mine and I’ve always had my hands in some aspect of psychiatry and law in my career,” he said.
He then spent five years at Beth Israel Medical Center (New York) and was recruited to Hartford Hospital.
Shortly after he arrived, in 1992, merger discussions began between Hartford Hospital and the Institute of Living.
The merger was driven by the managed care movement and the major impact it was having on the IOL. At the time, the IOL had an unimaginable 450 beds with an average length of stay of six months.
The tradition-laden institute was then downsized nine times in just a few years, with mass layoffs and program declines. By 1992, there were only 140 beds with average length of stay of 28 days.
Suffice to say, employee morale was at an all-time low — which is saying something when you are talking about an institution that is nearly 200 years old.
By 1993, the merger was moving forward and Schwartz moved from Hartford Hospital to the Institute of Living.
“[Hank] almost single-handedly brought the IOL back to national prominence,” said Al Herzog, MD, an IOL psychiatrist who has known Dr. Schwartz for about 30 years.
But there was difficult work to be done initially.
The first job he had was integration between HH and IOL. Every single program had to be evaluated. What programs stay? What go? Which merge? Who is the going to be the leader?
“There were countless personnel and program issues to be contended with,” he said. “I think it was the hardest working year of my life. But it was very successful.”
Schwartz said it was apparent that IOL staff were worried throughout the process, but came out of the integration feeling that judicious decision had been made.
“The rest is history for me, and the IOL,” Dr. Schwartz said.
The first step was to re-engage staff, and what helped do that was the concept of the Schizophrenia Initiative, a multifaceted process that led to new programs and research which they rallied around.
The initiative was developed with the help of a large donation that facilitates research and new programs for patients — some based on the cognitive rehabilitation approach, which at the time was a novel treatment for schizophrenia.
The Schizophrenia Initiative also led to the Olin Neuropsychiatry Research Center, which is doing cutting edge research and generating millions of dollars in grants, which Schwartz said is more than some medical schools with major research departments can claim. In total, there has been more than $80 million in research funding generated by the IOL, $38 million of which was generated specifically by The Olin Neuropsychiatry Research Center since 2001.
He is also very proud of the Potential Program, which helps young people showing the first signs of mental illness. Like many illnesses, catching it early increases the chances of positive results.
There has also been the Anxiety Disorders Center/Center for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, the Depression Initiative that enhanced mood-disorder programs, U.S. News and World Report recognition and the re-establishment of the IOL’s residency programs with three tracks — adult, child and adolescent and psychosomatic medicine.
He also served on the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Mental Health in 2000, which helped pass mental health laws that have benefited patients to this day.
As the leader of the Institute of Living, the oldest psychiatric hospital in the state and third oldest in the nation, everything mentioned above would have been enough to close out a career.
But then came the Sandy Hook shooting, a horrific massacre of students and teachers in Newtown that shook Connecticut and the nation to its core.
This is where his early interest in forensics came back in full force. Dr. Schwartz played a major role in the aftermath of the event, serving with 16 others on the Sandy Hook Advisory Commission. The commission issued a report that made recommendations on school safety, mental health and gun violence. He also co-authored a report issued by the state Office of the Child Advocate.
But he did not stop there. His interest in forensic psychiatry and law kicked in, so Dr. Schwartz did his own scholarly analysis of shooter Adam Lanza and others, producing a presentation, “The Mind of a Mass Shooter,” which he has delivered locally and nationally. Part of its focus is the impact of the change from face-to-face conversation and social interaction to isolation caused by cellphones, video games and social media.
He also went on to consult with federal officials on the National Dialogue on Mental Health and the Obama administration response to Sandy Hook.
And in 2016, he consulted with Sen. Chris Murphy on the Mental Health Reform Act of the 21st Century, also known as the Cures Act, which authorized $6.3 billion in funding, mostly for mental health.
In 2002, Schwartz was one of the few who spoke out against the Catholic Church. In stories that appeared in the New Yorker and the Hartford Courant, the Catholic Church’s use of psychiatry — or, allegedly sending priests suspected of having molested minors to psychiatrists and psychologists instead of informing appropriate authorities — became an issue.
Dr. Schwartz was quoted saying that in “many instances” Church officials did not reveal specific information about allegations of abuse and only sent priests to the IOL for other mental health conditions, which allowed some priests to be returned to the ministry without proper assessment or treatment.
“Hank is our conscience in many ways,” said Hartford HealthCare President Jeff Flaks. “He tells us what we need to know, not what we want to know.”
In his semi-retirement, Schwartz said he will continue to be an advocate, see patients, mentor residents, write and — of course — speak his mind.