Mark Lukens is the new president of Acadia Hospital and Northern Light Health’s senior vice president. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

A Bangor psychiatric hospital’s new president plans to use his experience as a paramedic, entrepreneur and behavioral health leader to find solutions to Maine’s psychiatric care bottleneck.

Mark Lukens started as Northern Light Health’s senior vice president and Acadia Hospital’s president about 10 weeks ago. He also teaches at the State University of New York.

Lukens is a Montana native but spent most of his life in Pennsylvania. He worked as a flight and SWAT paramedic and has owned about a dozen businesses, including pharmaceutical market research firms and marketing companies.

In his previous role, Lukens was president and CEO of Integre Health, Behavioral Health Services North and CWI, which are health care organizations serving central and northern New York.

Lukens — who was announced as Acadia Hospital’s next leader in early June — joins the hospital as it undergoes a $49.2 million expansion meant to address the psychiatric care logjam in Maine. Statewide demand for psychiatric services has left patients stuck in emergency departments for hours or sometimes days at a time — the wrong place for someone needing mental health treatment, hospital leaders have said.

Acadia Hospital will also launch a new psychiatry residency program that will train future mental health care leaders. Lukens also wants patient care to become more holistic, which means addressing gaps and exploring new approaches within the hospital system.

“Here we are 10 weeks later, and we’ve dug in deep,” he said. “We’ve created an environment here that is ripe to do amazing things. The people are incredible, and there is an exuberance to embrace change in a way that I haven’t seen historically.”

Acadia Hospital’s expansion includes a new pediatric wing and renovated rooms for adults, and will need adequate resources and trained staffing, so Acadia is preparing for the unveiling in January, Lukens said. There is also work to be done in the coming years to continue funding the building, he said.

Acadia is one of two private psychiatric hospitals in Maine. It has 783 full-time, part-time and per diem employees.

Mental health care should be accessible to people, and stigmas should not exist anymore, said Lukens, who was candid about his bouts of anxiety during an interview Thursday. That concept will be part of Acadia’s continued mission, he said.

“We all feel it,” he said. “Why not talk about it? It’s not taboo.”

There is a desire across Northern Light Health to address gaps in behavioral health care head-on, Lukens said. That could be introducing something novel, such as technology to make care management easier or artificial intelligence, he said.

There are models to lessen the load on emergency departments that aren’t being used in Maine and other parts of the nation, he said. For instance, 24-hour urgent care centers focused on mental health and crisis residential facilities, which would allow a patient to stay longer than an acute-care hospital like Acadia.

If a person addressed their mental health episode but needs care beyond a short hospital stay, they might consider a crisis residential facility, Lukens said. It provides a lower level of care designed to be sustainable, like access to support services 24/7 for up to 28 days, as an example.

“This aids a person’s transition back to the community,” he said.

Funding such projects is a challenge, and Lukens acknowledged the financial difficulties that hospitals nationwide are facing, especially post-COVID. Acadia is not immune to those challenges, but he does not intend to cut hospital staff or services, he said.

Health care has not created a sustainable model, and more exploration needs to be done to see what works and doesn’t work, Lukens said. He thinks change will stem from rural areas, which face challenges that metropolitan areas do not.

“We can create a model here, not just for Bangor or Maine, but potentially something that’s going to be replicated 50 times over across this country,” he said.

Lukens now lives with his wife and adult son in the Bangor area, and people have been warm and welcoming in a way that is different from previous places he has lived, he said. His daughter attends college in New York.