EDITORIAL: Meeting the mental health mandate

HARD NOT TO SYMPATHIZE with the Valatie residents who turned out last week to voice their displeasure with a proposal by the county Mental Health Department to open an office in the old Martin H. Glynn School building. They don’t want their neighborhood to be a destination for people known to have chemical dependencies or diagnosed with mental illness. Why their street? How did this happen?

It’s not as if opponents of the office dropped from outer space to stir up trouble. Scenes like this play out around the state when mental health services look to expand into new territory. People worry about their safety, about home values, about the reputation of their streets and the unknown factors that come with the arrival of “others.”

Local officials didn’t help matters with their failure to anticipate the predictable backlash to the plan. Some history on this point might help. The Ichabod Crane School District closed the Glynn School last year to save money, and last May voters approved a resolution transferring ownership of the brick building to the Town of Kinderhook and the Village of Valatie. Both the town and the village will set up their offices in the old school just as soon as the paperwork is finished. Nobody objected to this move; it’s a lot better than having the place sit empty.

The school has more room than the two municipalities need, and officials have discussed housing school district administration or special education functions there. No problem. Then suddenly word got out that the county Mental Health Department would be there too, and rumors and skepticism quickly began to circulate. Why all the secrecy?

Kinderhook Town Supervisor Pat Grattan told the meeting that local officials have tried for years to find a location for a mental health office in the town, implying that the county Mental Health Department proposal wasn’t a secret but rather an opportunity created by the vote giving ownership of the school to the municipalities.

That response sounds surprisingly naive. It makes the neighbors’ misgivings and outrage understandable. If someone wanted to sabotage this proposal, there was no better way than letting news of it it leak out without an immediate and coordinated effort to present the facts.

Facts? Start with the state mandate requiring that counties make mental health services accessible. This county has facilities only in Hudson. But the Town of Kinderhook is the largest municipality in Columbia County, and a third of the county’s population lives within a 5-mile radius of Valatie, according to Michael Cole, the county director of mental health.

State statistics for last year show the county had 542 people defined as mental health consumers, most of them adults with serious mental illness. There were also 56 children suffering from a serious emotional disturbances. Most of the patients are white and don’t fall into any single socio-economic status Mental illness, says Mr. Cole, “is an equal opportunity disabler.”

Among the other pertinent facts are the scale of the operation proposed for Valatie: an office where, individuals will be seen at first and later group therapy sessions will be held. No medications will be dispensed; no residential program. There would be a mental health office entrance separate from the one for the municipal offices.

Some of those visiting that office will be people who have abused substances. There are people in Valatie now who abuse substances. Would some of them seek help if it were closer at hand?

There are facts missing. No one has offered evidence that patients using a small-scale mental health services office that has no residential component and dispenses no medications presents a safety threat to the neighborhood or the nearby daycare operation. Whatever common sense might tell us, it’s no substitute for hard data.

At this point it seems unlikely that these facts will change anybody’s mind. But that is no excuse for town and village officials to abandon this proposal. Instead, they should appoint a committee of residents and officeholders to evaluate all realistic options for housing a local mental health services office, including the Martin H. Glynn School. Let this committee recommend to the Town Board where mental health services should be located in keeping with the therapeutic and other requirements of the state mandate.

Maybe the school has drawbacks that can’t be overcome. But maybe adapting part of this sturdy old school for a healing function will improve the neighborhood and the community that surrounds it.

 

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