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Agencies speak out against psych center closing

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The St. Lawrence River Valley Redevelopment Agency and Industrial Development Agency expressed opposition Tuesday to a state proposal that could close the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center in Ogdensburg.

In an effort to place greater emphasis on outpatient treatment for the mentally ill and reduce inpatient services, the state Office of Mental Health announced in March it would consider downsizing and even closing some facilities.

But the consequences of closing the region’s only state psychiatric and research facility would be devastating, according to officials from both the River Agency and IDA.

The St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center employs approximately 500 people and provides mental health services to patients in 13 counties.

IDA CEO Patrick J. Kelly said he fears that, if the center closes, the jobs lost would further devastate the local economy. He said as many as 800 jobs have been lost in the last few years because of the closing of the General Motors plant in Massena and the Newton Falls Fine Paper plant and the reduction of jobs in the zinc and talc mines in the Gouverneur area, not including the “numerous cutbacks and layoffs at local hospitals and schools.”

Lifelong Ogdensburg resident Vernon D. “Sam” Burns, D-Ogdensburg, the county Legislature’s representative on the River Agency, said the psychiatric center’s closing would result not only in job loss, but hurting the community as a whole.

“As part of downsizing and a decision to offer more therapeutic care over 25 years ago, many patients were placed in homes throughout the community,” Mr. Burns said. “And it’s worked. But the only reason it worked is because people in the community have been willing to accept these patients into their homes and care for them. Many of the city’s caregivers also would lose out on the benefits they receive for caring for patients. I don’t think that is being taken into consideration.”

Mr. Kelly said that the care provided by the residents of the north country is unlike any other area in the state.

“Time and time again, when the state needs a place to host facilities that aren’t always welcomed or sought out, Ogdensburg has been there for the state, whether it is correctional or a sexually violent predator facility,” he said. “There is clearly caregiver mindset within the community of the north country. To have a region like the north country and not take advantage of this type of care would be a shame.”

Location matters, Mr. Kelly said. Of the 24 psychiatric centers in the state, 23 of them are located near or south of the thruway or in urbanized areas. Patients and their families would have to drive more than two hours to receive resources at the nearest center in Syracuse, he said.

“You can have an outstanding center for regional excellence but, if it is not in our region, it is not going to help us,” Mr. Kelly said.

Both Mr. Kelly and Mr. Burns will be speaking at an upcoming listening forum hosted by the state Office of Mental Health, scheduled for 10 a.m. to noon May 15. Speakers and attendees must register on the Office of Mental Health website. Anyone from the community is allowed to speak. The Listening Tour will be held at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center Unity Center, 1 Chimney Point Drive.

“If anything, I hope they open their eyes to see it is viable and it serves many patients from the north country,” Mr. Burns said. “We are doing it right up here. If they really consider the patients, they will see that they should be adding to what is already here.”

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