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County Jail Left Holding The Bag

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Persuading some people with mental health problems to seek help can be difficult enough even when it’s convenient for them.

So when challenges to continue treatments increase, resistance to staying with the program also rises. Then more people end up drifting through life with little or no assistance.

Public safety and health professionals have raised this concern in light of the news that inpatient care services at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center in Ogdensburg will be moved.

The New York State Office of Mental Health announced in July that adult inpatient services would be relocated to the Empire Upstate Regional Office of Excellence in Syracuse beginning next year. In addition, inpatient services for children and youths would be moved to the Empire State Regional Center of Excellence in Utica starting in 2015. The only services left at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center will be its outpatient and secure sex offender treatment programs.

This decision has been forcefully opposed by many people throughout the north country. The St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center is the only OMH psychiatric facility north of the Thruway communities. Removing these inpatient care services will severely impair the ability of people living here to receive the help they need, and the OMH has yet to devise a plan to ease the burden of relocating such vital services so far away.

But the impact will not only be felt on St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center clients who will feel like they’ve been abandoned. St. Lawrence County Sheriff Kevin M. Wells warns that this move would lead to more people getting caught up in the criminal justice system.

Many people commit crimes, in part, because they suffer from mental health problems, Sheriff Wells said. But rather than being treated for their particular issues, they are imprisoned because their problems are masked by substance abuse, he said.

This strains the county’s resources for its jail even further, Sheriff Well said. Since the depth of mental health dilemmas that people experience is often not discovered until after they are incarcerated, corrections personnel must treat more individuals, he said.

There is a temptation for state officials to pat themselves on the back while touting what programs they’ve ended and how much money they’ve saved. This is helpful while campaigning for re-election.

But local taxpayer money will not be saved by the state in closing the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center. More of the burden for treatment will shift to the county jail systems.

In St. Lawrence County, the jail spends between $125,000 and $140,000 per year on medicine. Sheriff Wells said that 60 percent of this is for psychotropic drugs to treat inmates with mental health issues.

Representatives of the OMH must take into consideration how relocating the inpatient care services from Ogdensburg to Syracuse and Utica will impact municipal and county governments. Many people will discontinue the treatment programs they are receiving there, and this will place greater burdens on county penal systems.

Treating mental health problems in a clinical setting is much better than doing so in a jail. The state must rethink how it intends to deliver inpatient psychiatric services by working with community leaders, not against them.

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