Closing New York State Psychiatric Hospitals Is Dangerous

The impact of this insane let-em-lose-to-fend-for-themselves policy is cruel to people with mental illness who desperately need and want treatment. But it's also dangerous to the public.
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The recently announced proposed closure of Kingsboro Psychiatric Hospital in Brooklyn, is the latest step by the New York State Office of Mental Health (OMH) to get out of the business of providing treatment to people with serious mental illness and spurred a massive demonstration in Albany on Thursday. In the last 12 months, OMH announced they are "reducing census"--i.e., kicking the mentally ill out of -- Bronx, Mohawk Valley and Sagmore Psychiatric Center.These came on top of previously announced closings at Rockland Psychiatric Center, Pilgrim Psychiatric Center, Mid-Hudson Forensic Psychiatric Center, Hudson River Psychiatric Center, and Buffalo Psychiatric Center. Unions and families of people with serious mental illness are mad.

New York State Office of Mental Health Commissioner Michael Hogan and Governor Andrew Cuomo say patients will get the same services elsewhere. Some will. Most won't.

The impact of this insane let-em-lose-to-fend-for-themselves policy is cruel to people with mental illness who desperately need and want treatment. But it's also dangerous to the public. According to the Daily News, late last month, "A 25-year-old mentally ill Brooklyn man stabbed his mother and kid brother and beat them with a hammer." Near where Buffalo Psychiatric Center reduced beds, 6,300 homes experienced a blackout when a recently released allegedly mentally ill man used a chain saw to cut down utility poles. Near where Rockland Psychiatric Center reduced beds, police rescued a suicidal mentally ill man who was off medications, barricaded in his home and brandishing a pellet gun. And earlier this month, between where Rockland County Psychiatric Center and Hudson River Psychiatric Center reduced beds police shot and killed allegedly mentally ill Tim Mulqeen who brought a loaded shotgun and 50 rounds of ammunition to a city court.

When will this madness end? New York went from 599 psychiatric beds per 100,000 citizens down to twenty eight. And the new closures take us even lower. OMH is simply transferring the seriously ill to the criminal justice system. New York incarcerated 14,000 people with serious mental illness largely because OMH only has beds for 3,600. There are more mentally ill in a single jail, Riker's Island, than all state hospitals combined. The most conservative estimates are that if New York had the best community services available -- and we don't -- it would still need 4,311 more hospital beds to meet the minimum needs of seriously mentally ill New Yorkers.

A new study on "Homeland Security and Mental Illness" by Chief Michael Biasotti, vice-president of the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police found law enforcement is being overwhelmed by this "policy change that in effect removed the daily care of our nation's severely mentally ill population from the medical community and placed it with the criminal justice system." Families of people with serious mental illness are up in arms. In New York, hospital closures mean you are now more likely to be arrested for having a serious mental illness than hospitalized.

One would think ensuring the seriously mentally ill get treatment would be the core mission of the Office of Mental Health. But it hasn't been ever since Michael Hogan was appointed commissioner. His stated goal is to "create hope filled, humanized environments and relationships in which people can grow" not getting medications to the seriously mentally ill. One can understand what drives his hospital closure policy -- "Hey Gov., look how much money I'm saving!" But it's harder to understand how Cuomo doesn't recognize the impact on people with serious mental illness, public safety, and how Hogan's efforts to save OMH money are costing the criminal justice system and the state much more.

OMH should not be kicking patients out of hospitals. It should be sending its sickest citizens to the front of the line for services, not the rear.

A version of this post was previously published in the New York Daily News.

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