After touring the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center sheriffs and sheriff deputies from Jefferson, Franklin, St. Lawrence and Essex Counties spoke with one voice in opposition to the plan to shut down inpatient care facilities in Ogdensburg.
The tour, which took place under the guidance of representatives from the state Office of Mental Health on Thursday afternoon, was followed by a discussion at the Dobisky Center where attendees spoke candidly about their concerns.
The OMH has proposed closing the inpatient care facilities in Ogdensburg, instead sending patients to Centers of Excellence downstate as part of an effort to centralize mental health care and focus on community-based services.
But the plan has sheriffs from counties served by the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center concerned that as inpatient beds are taken out of the community county, prison cells will become the de facto mental health treatment facilities in the north country.
St. Lawrence County Sheriff Kevin M. Wells said the tour of the facility and his conversations with representatives from the OMH made him less optimistic about the future of mental health care in the region if inpatient services are closed in Ogdensburg.
It makes no sense for the health of the people who are up there [at SLPC] and it makes no sense for the safety of our communities, Mr. Wells said.
That sentiment was echoed by other sheriffs and deputies who are fearful that removing inpatient care will only drive more people into the jails.
I honestly dont believe the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center services 100 percent of the needs we have now, Franklin County Sheriff Kevin Mulverhill said, adding that roughly 30 percent of the inmates he sees on a daily basis are dealing with mental health issues. Now youre telling me that the people that are housed here now are going to be turned back onto the street?
Mr. Mulverhill said mental health patients are already getting caught up in a criminal justice system that isnt capable of helping them.
When someone dealing with a psychotic episode ends up in county jail, Mr. Mulverhill said, now Im responsible for his mental health care and his medical care and everything that goes along with it. When its all said and done [the courts] say, okay, youve done your 30 days, and they put him back on the street. We havent accomplished anything. We havent solved anything.
Were the end of the line, Mr. Mulverhill said. Those people are going to end up in county jail.
Essex County Sheriff Richard C. Cutting said he has also seen a high percentage of people in the county jail who are dealing with mental health issues, and the closure of the inpatient facility in Ogdensburg will only exacerbate the situation.
When you have inmates with mental health issues naturally their fuses are a lot shorter, Mr. Cutting said. We deal with a lot more inmate on inmate incidents. My response to that is I have to take the inmates and they go to [solitary confinement]. Now if they already have a mental health issue thats not doing them a bit of good. Thats lighting that fuse and burning it faster. Its a big issue for us.
Its the same story in Jefferson County where Lt. Kristopher M. Spencer, jail administrator of the Metro-Jefferson Public Safety Building, said roughly 30 percent of the inmate population on any given day is dealing with mental health issues.
Weve got judges that are sentencing people to jail when they wouldnt normally so they will be off the streets and not offending, Mr. Spencer said, adding that the state should expand inpatient services in the north country, not remove them.
Part of the problem with the plan by the OMH that was highlighted by the sheriffs at Thursdays meeting was the lack of clarity in the process.
Mr. Cutting said when he questioned representatives of the OMH about the Regional Centers of Excellence plan he saw a lot of dancing, a lot of side stepping in their responses.
Mr. Mulverhill agreed saying he has yet to see any study conducted about how much need each community has for outpatient mental health services to take up the slack left if the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center were to close down.
We have no idea what the need is, Mr. Mulverhill said. We havent seen any needs assessment.