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Psych center closure could result in an increased population behind bars with mental health issues, experts warn

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OGDENSBURG — Experts warn that closing St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center’s inpatient care services could lead to an increase in the number of people dealing with mental health issues avoiding treatment and getting swept up by law enforcement.

The state Office of Mental Health has proposed moving children’s inpatient care services to Utica and adult services to Syracuse.

“A lot of those people are on the streets already or they are living house to house or relative to relative,” St. Lawrence County Sheriff Kevin M. Wells said. “If all of a sudden people thought they had to be on the streets of Syracuse (to get treatment), they just won’t receive treatment.”

Mr. Wells said that as programs like the inpatient services at the psychiatric center are closed down, “a lot of these people in our communities who are dealing with mental illness are ending up in our county correctional facilities and they’ve ended up in our state prisons.”

Illona Gillette-Ferguson, assistant professor of biology at Clarkson University, Potsdam, said in her testimony to members of the state Assembly and Senate at Tuesday’s public hearing on the future of the psychiatric center, “It is clear from the literature that deinstitutionalization without the proper community support only leads to homelessness or incarceration.”

The plan put forward by the Office of Mental Health, Ms. Gillette-Ferguson said, will only shift the burden to prisons, not save money for the state.

With 186 beds at the county jail in Canton, Mr. Wells said, he is already dealing with a number of patients with mental health issues.

On Tuesday, 55 of 172 inmates at the jail were being treated for some sort of mental health illness, Mr. Wells said.

“These people come to us based on crimes they’ve committed in a community, but what are those crimes? What is the basis for the crimes? A lot of it is because their mental illness is being masked by substance abuse,” Mr. Wells said.

But if inpatient care is harder to obtain, Mr. Wells said, he expects the population of inmates with mental health problems will increase.

It will begin with people opting out of treatment due to the distance, which will begin “a downward spiral” in which they will start getting picked up by law enforcement, he said.

“The system doesn’t know what to do with them. The judge doesn’t know what to do with them,” Mr. Wells said.

Laurie J. Zweifel is a psychologist who works in outpatient care with children at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center. She does not speak on behalf of the psychiatric center, but she said, “outpatient care isn’t enough at certain times. There is never going to be a time when we don’t need inpatient hospitalization.”

If inpatient services are moved out of the region, Mrs. Zweifel said, it will lead to a decrease in the number of people willing to get treatment.

“I certainly have had patients who had to go inpatient, or they have been inpatient, and they say, ‘If we had to go somewhere else, we wouldn’t want to do that,’” Mrs. Zweifel said.

“It puts the parents in a very difficult position,” she said, adding that many people in the north country can’t afford transportation easily.

“My concern is that it could make people say they are not going to go to the emergency room because they don’t want their children sent so far away,” Mrs. Zweifel said. “And then the child isn’t getting the care they need.”

That can signify the start of a long road toward more severe problems in the future, Mrs. Zweifel said, as children turn to alcohol and other drugs in an effort to self-medicate. If children are treated property from the start, Mrs. Zweifel said, their chances of winding up in the criminal justice system later will be lower.

Mr. Wells also said an increase in the number of patients receiving treatment for mental health issues while behind bars would be an unfunded mandate by the state to the county.

The county jail spends $125,000 to $140,000 per year on medicine, and 60 percent of that is for psychotropic drugs to treat mental illness, Mr. Wells said.

As that cost increases, the county’s ability to pay it will decline, Mr. Wells said. “It’s so unpredictable that you really can’t budget for it,” he said.

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