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State lends a harming hand to the mentally ill

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We think we have it rough. Did you know people in Syracuse are going to have to drive 55 miles to see family members admitted to the children’s unit at Mohawk Valley Psychiatric Center in Utica once the state closes the children’s unit at Hutchings Psychiatric Center?

A whole 55 miles. That’s just terrible.

I read all about that insurmountable hardship late last week in a blog by Janet Gramza on The Post Standard’s website. Her blog is online at http://blog.syracuse.com/opinion/2013/07/janet_gramza_we_need_to_preser.html#comments.

I don’t mean to make light of any parent’s feelings about being away from their child, especially if that child requires inpatient psychiatric care. Having become a parent only 14 months ago, I can’t imagine what that’s like. I can only assume that it’s heartbreaking.

But 55 miles can be traveled in an hour. It’s a distance that some people in our parts travel every day to go to work. It is also eclipsed by the 133 miles from Ogdensburg to Utica, through some of the worst parts of the snow belt, that parents will have to travel to see their kids at Mohawk once the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center is stripped of children and youth inpatient services.

In the depths of winter, that 2 1/2 hour drive could take four hours or more. For those in Massena, the trip is 156 miles. From Malone, it’s 175 miles. For all of these communities, the trip is though unpredictable white-outs and blizzard conditions for a good portion of the year.

Judging by the comments on Ms. Gramza’s blog, people in Syracuse are pretty upset by the added distance they will have to go.

If they’re pretty upset, we should be downright livid.

Those who don’t have their own transportation in the Syracuse area can fairly easily hop on a bus to get to Utica. We don’t have that luxury. For those in St. Lawrence County who aren’t fortunate enough to have their own transportation — which is many, many people in one of the poorest counties in the state — Utica might as well be on the moon.

The situation gets me thinking about a friend I made last week. His name is Michael Rory Spellman. He lives in Ogdensburg and has been in and out of inpatient treatment, mostly at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center, for most of his life. He is originally from Plattsburgh, and told me he has been lucky to have his family close enough to visit whenever he has found himself back in the hospital.

Ogdensburg is 117 miles from Plattsburgh. It’s not an ideal distance for his family to travel to see him in the hospital, but he tells me they have found it manageable. He plans to return to Plattsburgh in the near future to be closer to family and friends.

If Mr. Spellman ends up needing inpatient care back in Plattsburgh and that care is not available in Ogdensburg, he will be shipped to Syracuse. That is 241 miles away from his family and friends. That means they probably won’t see him very much. And that means less of a support network for him while he tries to get better. That, too, is a heartbreaking scenario.

I say “if” he needs inpatient care, but Mr. Spellman told me it’s less “if” and more “when” he will end up back in the hospital. That’s just the nature of schizoaffective disorder.

And that’s what nobody at the state Office of Mental Health has mentioned. There are lots of people like Mr. Spellman who might not need inpatient care right now, but the nature of their diagnosis means they will almost certainly find themselves back in the hospital.

Less reliance on inpatient care and more support so the mentally ill can make it in the community on their own, as is the basis for the OMH plan, sounds like a wonderful idea. But people will still need inpatient care, and they shouldn’t have to travel 200 miles or more away from everybody and everything they know to get it. The path to recovery is lit by those who love us.

Preventing the potential loss of the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center’s 520 jobs is a cause worth fighting for, without a doubt. But we can’t lose sight of those the state’s flawed, irrational plan will hurt the most. For the state to move inpatient services to Syracuse and Utica means leaps backward from recovery for north country residents who will be sent far away from family and friends whose support they desperately need. And that is truly heartbreaking.

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