PLATTSBURGH — Officials statewide are praising the Office of Mental Health’s plan to close several mental-health hospitals across New York, including the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center in Ogdensburg.
Lauri Cole, executive director for the New York State Council for Behavioral Health, believes the state can’t continue to operate its mental-health system as it is now.
“The current system is oversized for the number of patients who utilize its services,” she said from her office in Albany.
“As scarce as resources continue to be, it’s important that we use those resources to invest in community mental-health systems.”
State hospitals such as St. Lawrence specialize in long-term care for patients with mental illness, but the current trend is to provide community-based, non-hospital-based services, Cole stressed.
“The community-based system of care in our state is overwhelmed,” she said.
“For instance, outpatient mental-health clinics often have very long waiting lists. The quicker you can intervene (in providing a person with mental-health care), the less likely the need for more acute, long-term services.”
With the closure of high-cost hospitals, subsequent savings can be reinvested into the communities to improve access to services, Cole noted.
“We certainly hope that some of the dollars associated with this retooling (of state facilities) will result in plugging the holes of unmet needs based on the priorities of each community, as well as the enhancement of existing services,” she said.
Harvey Rosenthal, executive director for the New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services, believes any revisions to the state’s mental-health program are long overdue.
“This is a system that was crafted in the ‘70s and ‘80s when we were much more involved in custodial care and institutional care and it was believed people were not able to recover (in the community),” he said.
“Now we know they can recover in the community with available resources.
“The Office of Mental Health has shown a commitment to move into community-based care.”
Changes to a more community-based program would also place New York state in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, he said, which requires states to provide the least-restrictive environment possible for people with special needs.
Rosenthal was actively involved in a similar project in 1993 when the state closed five mental-health hospitals and reinvested savings into community projects.
“It’s a very powerful approach,” he said of the process to transfer funds from state-run hospitals to community-based services.
“This puts the focus on the community, so we can build up the services within the community.”
A lot of resistance to closing state hospitals has come from a fear of losing jobs for communities, but the Office of Mental Health has stated that none will be lost from downsizing.
Employees of hospitals slated for closure will have the option to move into outpatient settings or to transfer into other state positions or other communities.
“It’s my understanding that cost savings are associated with the maintenance of those facilities and layoffs,” Cole said. “The point is that the state cannot afford to continue to operate the system as it’s currently configured.”
Rosenthal admitted that the potential of lost jobs has slowed efforts to downsize the mental-health system but noted that hospitals are “treatment programs, not jobs programs.”
However, Office of Mental Health Public Relations Director Benjamin Rosen emphasized the point that no layoffs will occur from the restructuring.
The Council for Community Behavioral Health is a statewide organization that supports mental-health and substance-abuse agencies. The council provides advocacy, resources and technical assistance to those who provide mental-health services.
The Association for Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services is a grassroots coalition that, its description says, has been working for 30 years to move the state’s mental-health services into a more modern, progressive recovery-based system.
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