‘Community is the heart of healing’

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Published: 6/10/2019 10:01:07 AM

May was Mental Health Awareness month. Of course, every month is mental health awareness month. As I write this we have a loved one in the top psychiatric hospital in the country receiving treatment. We are lucky that this hospital is in Massachusetts. Yet even this hospital is lacking. I’ve been involved with mental health before I had a loved one who suffered with this. I was a director of special education. I was on the NAMI, National Alliance on Mental Illness, board for Massachusetts for eight years and am currently on a human rights board for the behavioral health unit at Vibra hospital. Yet with all of this I am always two steps behind, always searching for the name of a psychiatrist, advocating, looking for that path that will lead me to the information that we need.

When I was a special ed director, there were state hospitals. These were closed with the promise of more programs in the community. While the state hospitals had many issues many people were helped there. Why is it in this country instead of improving, updating, re-visiting a program, we feel the need to just close and abandon instead. We needed those hospitals and those campuses. We needed to address the issues and make them better. We also needed programs in the community. There is a treatment protocol that has been used for over a hundred years. These campuses were the prison farm, the mental health farm and the poor farm. The treatment involved literally was a farm. Then other jobs were added. Now, for a mere $15,000 a month, an adult with a mental health problem can reside at a private program that offers a therapeutic setting — a farm. There are acres of land for peace. There are farm animals, gardens and different jobs from woodworking to car repair. One place even runs a restaurant. But at that price, who can afford to send their loved one. Not many. Gould Farm in the Berkshires is such a place. The states can use this model. We had this model.

The former hospital campus could have been re-designed. Some buildings could house the seriously ill who may not be able to leave. This more restrictive setting would blend out to main street where there would be offices, day programs and apartments for those who are capable of more. Community is therapeutic, living alone in an apartment or in a shelter is not. This model would have working opportunities on campus... yes, the farm and other jobs. Graduate students in social work, psychology could be involved as mentors to residents. Everyone residing in such a setting would have Medicaid, Medicare or private insurance, which would pay for their doctor, psychiatrist, therapist. This can be done.

The most expensive part is the real estate. The states have that. They campuses need work but they exist. I often wonder what happens to the money when part of a former mental health hospital is sold for development. Did the money go to the department of mental health for programs?? I don’t believe so.

So, we find out that Baystate plans to close our local psychiatric unit along with those in Westfield and Palmer. They will close perhaps our most important community program, the one for those in crisis. There are other community programs if you are well enough to get there. These programs will tell you, we’re here, you just need to come. For many that step, alone, is too difficult and there is not enough staff to guide these help.

There are other adults suffering. Those that have substance abuse which often involves a mental health diagnosis. There are many adults with autism — again, no place to go as adults. Most still live at home. The treatment model described above works. Community is the heart of healing. But where is it? We still have hundreds of thousands of veterans with severe mental health issues not receiving treatment. Twenty-two a day commit suicide. Is that alright? There are many families who are aging and wondering: what is going to happen to our loved one when I’m gone? I read nursing homes going out of business. Couldn’t this space be adapted? Former schools that have closed — could they be adapted? I have been told that there are just not enough votes to prioritize the needs of those with behavioral disorders. Thusly this problem is not high on the “to do” list for most states.

The above treatment model works. If only someone with the power could look into it. As of right now this population, their families and the professionals who work in the related fields are not being heard. But the elephant in the room … Where are all of these adults with persistent mental health issues going to live? Once our generation is gone, what’s going to happen to them?

Susan M. Louisignau is a resident of Greenfield.

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