By Karl Shallowhorn
The recent announcement of the closure of the Western New York Children’s Psychiatric Center is a step backward in meeting the needs of youth with severe mental health challenges. Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration cites the need to create Centers of Excellence, which entails the closure of several mental health facilities. The idea is to reinvest the funds that will be saved into community health services. As a result, the children needing care will be moved to the Buffalo Psychiatric Center.
In New York State, and across the country, we are in the midst of an acute mental health crisis. Due to cuts in spending, the number of psychiatric beds for those living with severe and persistent mental illness has dramatically decreased. This includes those for children. Our children are the most vulnerable among us. In addition, due to the stigma associated with mental illness, many families are not comfortable speaking publicly about their struggles with “the system.” We need to come together with a common voice on behalf of our children.
As a mental health consumer and professional, I have seen firsthand how effective early intervention can be for a young person dealing with a psychiatric disorder. I have been to the campus of the children’s facility on several occasions and have spoken to groups there about my own journey. I also have the experience of having been hospitalized at the Buffalo Psychiatric Center. While there are those who argue that it’s fine that children will be placed on different floors than adults, I have to respond, “Have you ever been there?”
There is a stark difference between the two facilities. It’s hard enough for a child to have to be placed in an institution. The idea of having children placed at BPC is alarming. What will be the long-term effects on these children and at what price? It is impossible to put a dollar figure on that.
The rationale behind my argument goes far beyond just the closure of the children’s center. In our society, those living with mental illness are both stigmatized and marginalized. While other physiological conditions receive generous funding (both public and private), mental health lags further behind. The reality is that one out of four adults and 13 to 20 percent of children in the United States live with a diagnosable mental health challenge (CDC, May 2013). What is needed is a paradigm shift in how we view those who are affected. They are our fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, children and neighbors. We are all touched in one way or another.
While Cuomo and his administration are looking at dollars and cents, we should be looking at the children who will be affected. Perhaps if the governor had a child who would be in need of such care, things would be different.
Karl Shallowhorn is director of community advocacy for the Mental Health Association of Erie County and Compeer Buffalo.