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State meeting on psych centers is good news and bad

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The news last week that the state Office of Mental Health will include Ogdensburg on its list of meeting sites to gather input on a plan to downsize its number of inpatient beds for psychiatric patients is a mixed bag for us.

It’s good because OMH won’t end up ignoring that we do, in fact, have a state-run inpatient psychiatric hospital in our back yard and we might have some feeling one way or the other about what happens to it. Until last week, Syracuse was the farthest north OMH officials were planning to travel to hold a meeting on their “listening tour.”

The bad news is that the so-called plan to right-size care for the mentally ill is really too vague for anybody to get a handle on what the state is up to. It’s hard for anyone to weigh in on a plan that isn’t more than an idea, especially when that idea is wrapped in the notion of providing the best possible care for the mentally ill. Opposing that notion is like being against puppies and kittens.

As state Sen. Patty Ritchie told me last week, it’s hard to fight something when you don’t know what you’re fighting.

The state has only made part of its vague plan close to clear: the state has too many inpatient psychiatric hospitals and that states bigger than ours presumably get along just fine with only a handful of inpatient facilities. I believe an example on OMH’s website, www.omh.ny.gov, is that New York has 24 hospitals in state with a population of 18 million, while California, with its population of 37 million, has five inpatient hospitals. That means there is a pretty good chance some state-run hospital, somewhere, is going to close. Employees at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Hospital in Ogdensburg are understandably worried that hospital is ours.

I’ve tried to get answers from OMH about the details of this plan, if you want to call it that. They haven’t responded.

It could be that they don’t have those details, which begs a question about why they would be trying to gauge public feeling about something they haven’t even thought out themselves. Or it could be that they’re holding their cards close because they expect there will be objections to their vision for the future. Neither scenario is great.

Coupled with the notion that we have too many inpatient psychiatric hospitals is the feeling by state officials that OMH has to do more to support mentally ill people so they can make it on their own. That’s something we in Ogdensburg have known for a long, long time. We see it every day, hopeless, lost and frightened on our streets.

It’s clear that the state’s outpatient mental health services are woefully inadequate. It’s also clear that the state will have to do a heck of a lot to turn that situation around, especially if inpatient treatment options are reduced. Again, details for what OMH has in mind to bolster outpatient services are nowhere to be found.

I hate to be cynical, but let’s face it. OMH does not have the best track record for being up front with the public about its plans. Back when the Sexually Violent Predators Unit was established here, getting any answers from the state about how it would come about was like pulling teeth. As somebody who pays attention to history and tries to learn from it, I don’t expect that the meeting they will hold here May 15 - from 10 a.m. to noon at the Unity Center on the psychiatric center campus - will yield many answers to the questions we have.

But what it will do is give us an opportunity to tell the state how we feel about the prospect of the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center closing its inpatient services and forcing people to drive hours to get the care they need. It will give us the chance to tell them how we feel about the evidence we see every day about how lacking their outpatient services currently are.

It will allow us to let them know we’re paying attention to what they’re doing.

We will be at the meeting with bells on. I predict we will have lots of company.

If you can’t make the meeting but you want to weigh in, you can submit comments to OMH online at http://omh.ny.gov/omhweb/excellence/comment_card.html .

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