New York State is planning to shut down the two closest state-run mental hospitals in this area. The new plan, beginning in July of next year, is that patients needing longer care than seven to ten days will have to go to Buffalo, to the “Regional Center of Excellence” they are planning to establish there.

According to testimony given at the hearing in Binghamton on October 28, in which law enforcement, mental health professionals and human service agencies testified against the State’s infinite wisdom in planning to shut down the two Southern Tier mental hospitals, the largest provider of mental health services in the United States is the Los Angeles County jail. The second largest is the Cook County jail.

Meanwhile, New York State’s Office of Mental Health is trying to get our mental health system to look more like California’s: in contrast to NY, where there are 24 state-operated mental health inpatient facilities, California has three.

A spokesperson for OMH said it’s a question of sustainability: we have to make hard decisions now, or face harder decisions later. The argument is that the state really can’t afford to support these hospitals. However, the consensus among the professionals who testified at the Binghamton hearing is that the mentally ill aren’t just going to go away if we don’t provide a safe place for them to be; they’re going to end up in the jails. The police say it. The social workers say it. The hospital personnel say it. Therefore, if shutting down Elmira Psychiatric Center and Greater Binghamton Health Center is going to save the state money, the alternative treatments available have to be cheaper- unless they’re counting on that alternative to be jail.

A rather striking example of what can happen is in the northern part of the region our newspapers cover, right in Seneca County. Willard Psychiatric Center in Romulus was an open campus of a collection of buildings for housing and treating the mentally ill. When Willard closed, families of the long term mentally ill housed therein protested. In spite of what you see in the movies, not everyone in a state mental hospital is eager to get out. And not everyone who wants to get out is ready to get out; if the person wants to be discharged so they can attempt suicide again, for instance, don’t loved ones have a right to intervene?

“To me, it’s hospitalization, not incarceration,” said Jean Walters, who was instrumental in lobbying to keep Willard open. “Pataki promised us he would not close it. They were very dedicated people up there; they were really taking care of the patients.”

Willard closed, however. What’s there now is a drug treatment facility run by the state office of Corrections; instead of the old open campus, it’s surrounded by galvanized fence topped by concertina wire. “They used to have 900 patients, and now they have 900 prisoners,” said Walters. “I’m not optimistic (about the OMH plan to close EPC and GBHC) because of what we went through with Willard.”

The other argument cited by the state is the Olmstead decision by the Supreme Court in 1999, which makes it illegal for the state to keep someone with mental illness or impairment in an institution against their will. That sounds very noble, except, isn’t jail about keeping people against their will? Is it really preferable to have corrections officers doing one-on-one suicide watch with the people who have been remanded to their care, than psychiatric nurses or caregivers?

The other common note sounded at the hearings is that the State plan to move mental health care to a more community-based model just isn’t solid yet. It’s like burning down your house because repairs cost too much, and then moving into a tent. Sooner or later, you’re going to want a house again. If all this money the state is purportedly saving by closing the mental hospitals is not set aside for caring for the mentally ill, and so far it does not seem to be, that literally leaves the state’s most vulnerable people out in the cold. Swelling the ranks of homeless by shutting down the mental hospitals is no solution, and while the OMH protests that’s the last thing they want to achieve, to prove that’s not where they’re going they are going to have to come up with a better plan.

One last point, and a crucial one, is that of the state operated facilities in New York, EPC and Binghamton are the best. People from the edges of their fifteen-county coverage area don’t go outward to Buffalo – where the OMH plans on sending the patients after next July – but inward, to Elmira or Binghamton. EPC and GBHC have a strong reputation for being humane and giving good care. “They are the highest performing centers in the state,” says Sue Romancszuk, Tompkins County’s Mental Health Commissioner.

Therefore, local officials are trying to get the state to change the plan, and keep a facility open here in the Southern Tier. That’s the best solution for our area.

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