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North Country Council of Social Agencies releases survey showing mental health access highest unmet need in region, oppose closure of SLPC inpatient services

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An informal survey conducted in November by the North Country Council of Social Agencies and delivered to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo found that the number-one unmet human service need in the region is access to mental health care.

The council believes the survey, which included responses from social service agencies in St. Lawrence, Lewis, Jefferson, Essex, Herkimer, Oswego, Hamilton, Franklin, Onondaga, Clinton, Cayuga and Madison counties, shows that the state Office of Mental Health’s plan to close inpatient services at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center is ill conceived.

“The survey led us to be very concerned about closing the hospital,” said Pamela A. Kaus, chairwoman of the council’s Critical Needs Committee and an assistant professor of human services at Jefferson Community College, Watertown.

Mrs. Kaus said social services agencies are the “boots on the ground. They are the front-line workers. These are agencies that are dealing directly with these populations [of people with mental illnesses].”

In total, 51 percent of the responding agencies rated access to mental health services as the number-one unmet need in the region, with 27.3 percent saying it is a high need.

Finding primary care providers that accept Medicaid and Medicare was the second-highest unmet need listed by the agencies, with 37.9 percent calling that a “highest” need area.

Mrs. Kaus said so many agencies listed access to mental health services as their number-one issue because how good or bad treatment is in their respective areas reverberates through every aspect of the work these groups do.

“These problems don’t exist in a vacuum,” she said, adding that when mental health care access is limited, employment becomes a challenge for individuals with unmet needs.

Food and housing security can also become a problem for people dealing with mental health issues, Mrs. Kaus said, exacerbating the challenges agencies working on a broad spectrum of social service issues face.

She said OMH’s proposal to close inpatient mental health services in Ogdensburg and send patients to facilities downstate “alarmed us because we saw this becoming an even bigger problem.”

Mrs. Kaus noted that the survey was taking the pulse of unmet needs that exists today; if inpatient facilities at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center close, the problem will become more acute.

For that reason the results of the survey and a letter opposing the proposed closure of the psychiatric center was sent to Mr. Cuomo as well state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, Assemblyman Kenneth J. Blankenbush, R-Black River, and U.S. Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh.

“No matter where you’re from, they’re in office because they’ve been put in office by the citizens of the state,” Mrs. Kaus said. “I know that they need to hear from us. They need to know what we think about this. Truly the people are hoping that policymakers will do the right thing.”

The council’s survey can be found online at www.nccsa.com/.

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