Funny what we can afford when it suits us

Does anyone remember when Saint Ronald Reagan began closing all of the psychiatric centers in California? His supporters were all staunchly in favor, and the results, good or bad, were meaningless. This was a Crusade, nothing more, nothing less, with people on both sides of the political spectrum involved in its passage for their own reasons. What were the results? The results were small, short-term care facilities, and an awful lot of homeless people. Nobody cared all that much at the time.

Fast forward to the 1980s, and New York State followed suit, dumping, and I do mean dumping, literally thousands of helpless individuals into the street. Hospitals, small private agencies and the like, did their best to replace what these psychiatric centers delivered, but without much success. I remember a study done some time after, in New York City, spurred by an increase in the homeless, that showed over 80 percent of these people had psychiatric issues. I’m not sure why that required a study. In the meantime, our prisons are posing as long term care facilities.

What was the motivation? The largest motivation was money, plain and simple. Psychiatric patients didn’t receive the same sorts of funding as the Developmentally Disabled. Other than money, there were the usual Liberal groups of “do-gooders”, as my father used to say, who decried “Warehousing”, and ill treatment, and lack of freedom. Some of this was certainly true, but for an awful lot of sick individuals, meals and health care, housing and clothing was provided, as opposed to living in a box in the street. Anyway, what’s done is done. So why discuss it now?

We discuss it now because most of the same people, those who oppose most expenditures of public money, those who hate public employment of any kind, now call for more care for the mentally ill, including providing long term care facilities! Why now, what’s changed? The 2nd Amendment is under attack in their eyes, that’s what’s changed. The argument is to steer any and all changes in law as a result of recent slaughters of innocents by maniacs with guns, is to incarcerate, forcibly incarcerate, the mentally ill. The call is now to identify and force these people into treatment. OK, I can see that as part of the solution, but then have to ask where all the money is going to come from? Forget the fact that most gun murders are committed by people that are not mentally ill, at least legally speaking, but it would address those few high profile cases where people were killed by crazed killers with guns, and helps to hide the real issue of there just being too many guns in this country. But, this is not going to be about gun control, there’s been enough of that. I do want to discuss the issue of the mentally ill and what we’re going to do about it.

There have been several high profile cases in New York City where people with serious mental issues pushed innocents onto train tracks. The shooting in Connecticut, the movie theater in Aurora, and the murders at Virginia Tech were all committed by people who probably should have been in some sort of lock down unit, the sort of long term facility that no longer exists. How many can we build and staff? It wasn’t that long ago we collectively decided the answer to that question was “Zero!” And already I have seen advocates for the mentally ill decrying the stereotyping of them as dangerous, stating that the majority are not. That might even be true, but then there is that issue of whether they can care for themselves, but I guess that’s not part of the equation from anyone’s side. As long as they can find a box to sleep in, and their existence doesn’t interfere with gun ownership, nobody seems to care.

I do know in some cases, people who had been patients in Psychiatric Centers for years were reevaluated at closing, and many determined to have various “Developmental Disabilities,” and shipped to the system in place for that population. I know, I worked with that population for many years. Just like now that most facilities for Juvenile Delinquents have closed, that population is being labeled with many new and strange “disorders” that now qualify them to also move into the system for the Developmentally Disabled. The latest plans from the state are to get out of that system as well, dumping this collective population into private agencies. It will save money, no doubt, but I’m thinking we’re going to need an awful lot of boxes.

I must backtrack a bit, to point out that the large buildings that used to house the Developmentally Disabled were closed years ago and the individuals they served moved into a series of “Group Homes”, I must admit in some cases a more humane and decent place to live and receive treatment, but in other cases merely a difference in size. Anyway, from what I understand, those group homes will be closing, at least those run by the state. I’m not sure where those requiring total, hospital like care will go, or those too violent to ever be released and clearly not wanted by any existing private agency that I know of. Remember that poor young woman murdered in Buffalo by two of those juvenile criminal type individuals? She’ll have company in the headlines, I have no doubt. You can’t staff on the cheap when dealing with some individuals. But, we will save money, and that’s what counts, at least until one of them is on the street, gets a gun and kills a bunch of people causing an outcry to ban or restrict guns. Then the 2nd Amendment folks will be at the front of the line demanding more facilities be built, more people locked up, and we’re back to square one again. Once again, where will the money come from?

Rhetoric and political dogma rarely, if ever, truly address reality and actual needs and issues. Anti-tax, anti-public employee types are always at the front to demand closing the very places they’re now asking the government to provide. Some don’t even realize that’s what they’re doing, as they don’t understand that the small hospital facilities for Mental Health care are not designed for long term evaluations. They’re designed for short term care to medicate symptoms to some sort of control and then back out into the world with no way of ensuring that those medications will be taken. That’s the difference. The exact same points can be aimed at those who advocate for the mentally ill to have free choice as to whether they receive treatment or not, basing that opinion mostly on whether they’re dangerous to others. Whether they can care for themselves doesn’t seem to matter.

All I see from individuals as well as the people they elect to represent them are totally conflicting demands on spending and services and laws. But then it’s difficult to take a stand or a position on certain things when one’s stand or position repeatedly changes depending on the circumstances.

Paul Christopher is a Dunkirk resident. Send comments to