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Former psychiatric center patient fears for the future

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OGDENSBURG — Michael Rory Spellman’s last stay in the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center was about a year ago. He is doing well on his own now, but knows he probably will need inpatient mental health care again.

What the 53-year-old Ogdensburg resident with schizoaffective disorder doesn’t know is how he will fare if he has to seek that psychiatric care in Syracuse.

There, he fears, he and others could be dumped into a harsh street reality that is a different world from the relative safety of Ogdensburg.

“What would be next if I was transferred from St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center to Syracuse? If I was discharged, would heroin or crack cocaine be waiting outside the door for me?” he asked Thursday.

Mr. Spellman said he and many other mental health clients are worried about their future care under the state Office of Mental Health’s plans to move inpatient treatment out of the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center.

OMH has proposed sweeping changes to its mental health delivery system that officials have said will move care away from outdated reliance on inpatient treatment and toward community support to help those with mental illness live independently. The move is driven, in part, by care delivery changes called for by the federal Affordable Care Act to better coordinate mental health care with medical care.

Under the state’s plan, children and youth services will be moved to Mohawk Valley Psychiatric Center in Utica, and adult services will be moved to Hutchings Psychiatric Center in Syracuse. The two centers will merge under the umbrella of the Empire Upstate Regional Center of Excellence, which also will absorb the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center.

Mr. Spellman said he especially worries about children and youths who are discharged from the Utica hospital into intermediate care before coming home.

“What do they plan on doing with youth in Utica? Have them get discharged into a bad neighborhood where they will get on crack or get shot?” he said.

Mr. Spellman was first diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at age 22. He is an Army veteran who served in 1978. His first stay at the Ogdensburg psychiatric hospital was in 1981.

“I’ve been in and out most of my life, and while I was there, I received good, proper nutrition, good therapeutic value and was well treated,” he said. “All the therapy aides, psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses and maintenance men are very professional, very well trained and very friendly toward the patients compared to the other inpatient facilities I was in such as Hutchings and Middletown. They’re bigger, and there’s more violence and lack of care compared to St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center.”

Mr. Spellman said he is thankful to have support from the Ogdensburg Wellness Center and family members who live in Plattsburgh. During his inpatient stays, he said, his family played a major role in keeping his spirits up and getting him back on the road to independence. He said they were able to see him often and could check him out of the hospital occasionally on weekend passes.

If he is admitted for inpatient care in Syracuse, he said, traveling from Plattsburgh would be a burden on his family. They might not be able to see him as much as a result.

“I am worried not just for me, but for everybody,” he said.

He said he remembers back when the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center had direct employment and enrichment programs such as its greenhouse program. It also used to have a farm that patients helped maintain. Those programs helped tremendously in recovery, he said.

“They need to rebuild the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center,” Mr. Spellman said. “They could get back to some of the old ways with flower shops and gardens. They could be cooperative with Governor Andrew Cuomo on what they think they should be paid. Why lay off 525 qualified people to supervise patients who could improve themselves and be paid, and then be put into community residences or homes?”

It is difficult for him to make sense of the state’s plans. Without the care he received at the Ogdensburg hospital, he said, he would have been dead at 23.

“I am now 53 years old, drug-free, alcohol-free and happy,” he said. “St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center is known as one of the best psychiatric centers in the U.S. If they must make layoffs, why not do it in Albany or Syracuse, where they are making more money?”

He said he would be glad to share his story with anyone who will listen in hopes of getting state officials to change their minds.

“A lot of improvement could be made there [at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center] if Governor Cuomo and the Office of Mental Health will listen,” he said.

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