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Tue., Sep. 1
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Fight like our lives depend on it, because they do


I am taking a break for the next two months as my husband, daughter and I welcome into the world the newest addition to our family.

I am going to miss sharing my thoughts with you and hearing your feedback, but I’m sure I’ll have plenty to write about by the time I get back Nov. 4.

In the meantime, I leave you with a parting shot at the state’s plan to move inpatient services from the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center to hospitals in Syracuse and Utica.

I’m starting to hear dejected remarks from people about how successful the effort to keep the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center’s inpatient services will be. Workers, mental health advocates and even those on the front lines of the fight have told me privately they are losing hope that the center will end up being anything more than a holding tank for those committed by courts to the state’s sex offender treatment program.

The fight has barely begun, but nobody so far has really been fighting it. There has been a vigorous game of footsy played with the governor and the state Office of Mental Health, but nobody has really yet rolled up their sleeves, drawn a line in the sand and dared Albany to cross it. That has to change.

Our hope at turning this around is only as strong as the fight that is left in us. And the center’s workers have to be a highly visible, highly vocal part of it. They so far have been all but missing from it.

I have been told by lots of people who work there that the workers are scared to say anything because they are afraid they will lose their jobs.

I can’t understand this fear, seeing as at this point I don’t see how anybody’s job is really safe anyway.

That aside, the center’s workers have union protection. Part and parcel with union membership is the right to protest things their employer is doing that they feel put their jobs in jeopardy. That’s what a union is for, right? Especially ones as powerful as the Civil Service Employees Association and the Public Employees Federation. When the leaders of those unions speak, politicians tend to listen.

Union members need to reach out to their statewide leadership for guidance, help and support so they can get involved with the fight to save not only their own livelihoods but quality care for the people they are charged with caring for and protecting. Danny Donohue, the state CSEA chief, pulls no punches on the psychiatric center consolidation issue in an opinion piece in today’s paper. He isn’t afraid to speak out. No CSEA member should be, either.

Union members: Organize and fight. March on Albany. Protest anywhere and everywhere your message will be heard. Write letters. Call OMH leaders and elected officials. Demand answers. Get mad. Don’t leave your fate up to others who don’t have as much skin in the game as you do. This is your fight to win or lose. Don’t let fear of repurcussions paralyze you. Only one thing is certain. If you do nothing, everyone will lose.

Speaking of the fight to keep the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center open, there is a spaghetti dinner Sept. 14 from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Knights of Columbus in Ogdensburg to raise money to support the psych center task force’s efforts. The task force needs funds to support its lobbying efforts, so please come out and support the dinner.

I’ve taken a shot or two at the task force in this column for not doing enough to pressure the state to back off its plan to gut the psych center’s services. I still think the efforts so far have not been aggressive enough.

But the fact is that the task force can only do so much without money. It can only print so many T-shirts and yard signs, and those things only take their message so far. They need to undertake a statewide campaign to spread their message, and that takes money the task force does not have.

I can already hear groaning from some of you about constantly being solicited to give to whatever the cause of the day happens to be. I understand how you feel. But if ever there was a cause that urgently required your support, this is it.

The impact of the psychiatric center’s closure will be felt everywhere. You are not immune to it.

Workers will either move away to keep their jobs, taking their families and spending power with them, or join the already swollen ranks of the unemployed. Businesses will close. The tax base will deteriorate, and those of us still here will be forced to pay more to pick up the slack. This place could very well become a ghost town.

If you don’t have the time, will, energy, what-have-you to jump into the fight, you can shell out a few bucks for a spaghetti dinner and a T-shirt to try to help our community avoid catastrophe.

If you feel you can do more than shell out a few bucks, talk to task force members and city leaders to find out how you can help. When it comes to the number of people telling the state to scrap its plan to gut the psych center after 130 years of faithful service to the most vulnerable among us, the more the merrier.

As I told the center’s unions a few paragraphs up, this fight is yours to win or lose. If we do nothing, defeat is certain.

I hope there is good news on this front by the time I get back in November. Until then, I urge everyone involved so far and those who will join the cause to keep fighting the good fight. Don’t lose hope.

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