Assemblywoman Addie A.E. Jenne, D-Theresa, is continuing to work on addressing the need to improve access to appropriate care for North Country youth with mental health needs.
She took part in a roundtable discussion last month in Watertown with New York State Office of Mental Health Commissioner Ann Sullivan, several Office of Mental Health staff team members, hospital officials and representatives from a host of agencies providing mental health services in St. Lawrence and Jefferson counties.
Jenne followed that up with a recent stop at the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center, where she had an opportunity to discuss the children and youth program with the Ogdensburg facility's executive staff.
She also met with Claxton-Hepburn Hospital officials last week to discuss the challenges of finding long-term treatment beds for young people.
"This is a very challenging issue, and the numbers demonstrate there is a problem that has to be addressed. Last week, there were nearly two dozen children and adolescents being housed in emergency rooms in hospitals in St. Lawrence and Jefferson counties as hospital officials sought long-term treatment beds for those patients," Jenne said.
She pointed out state Office of Mental Health officials recently met with providers in St. Lawrence and Jefferson counties to discuss high utilization rates for mental health care for youth in the region, numbers that are dramatically higher than other regions of the state.
She said access to mental health care - for children, adolescents and adults - remains an issue in the North Country.
Assemblywoman Jenne said the statistics demonstrate the need for additional treatment and respite beds in the region.
The St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center currently has a 27-bed capacity for children and adolescents and a 47-bed capacity for adults.
Northwood Manor, a 26-bed community residence, is also located on the grounds as well as the St. Lawrence Children and Adolescent Respite House, a program described in the following link: https://youtu.be/aIdazIQXHr4.
Asemblywoman Jenne said her conversation with St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center Acting Executive Director Aimee Dean and Deputy Director of Operations/Children and Youth Services Angela Burke provided her with an overview of the six-bed respite house located in Ogdensburg. Four residents were staying at the respite home at the time of the assemblywoman's visit.
The respite house is aimed at providing a one- to two-week break for children and adolescents experiencing conflict with their families, at home or even at school.
Counselors work with the residents during their stay to address the underlying issues causing their behavioral issues and use the break to work on steps the child or teenager can take to re-evaluate their behavior.
"I was pleased to see the respite house is open and being utilized and that students in need of its services can be referred by parents, school counselors, pediatricians, outpatient mental health counselors and professionals staffing emergency rooms at our local hospitals.
"This is a valuable asset that can assist youngsters that have some issues that need to be addressed but don't need to hospitalized," Jenne said.
"It's an option that can benefit the child and their caregivers at home. It meets a community need, and it was also great to see the facility renovating and reusing an 80-year-old home that at one time housed staff members into the respite house," she noted.
Jenne also toured the grounds of the psychiatric center with Ms. Dean. Ms. Burke and Chief of Adult Services Kristine Weber.
She also stopped in the children and youth unit and saw a grow rack that had been donated for the children and youth education program by 24:45 Organics of Massena. Two residents had helped the company's staff install the grow racks.
"The grow racks have become an important component of the farm to school pilot program I have secured funding for in St. Lawrence and Jefferson counties," Assemblywoman Jenne said.
"Agriculture has deep roots on the psychiatric center grounds and was part of the therapeutic environment for decades. The grow racks will also help connect the kids to programs they are seeing at their own schools," she noted.
"It provides a hands on learning experience, and the growing season for the greens in the grow rack meshes neatly with the average length of stay of a resident in the unit, 17 to 20 days. They get to experience the grow rack from planting to harvest," the assemblywoman added.
Dean also shared numbers detailing changes in the psychiatric center's role in recent years.
"The need is changing. We have shifted to managed care day to day from long-term care," she said.
Psychiatric center officials said patients routinely had average stays of 10, 15, 20 years or even longer in the past. A new adult admission now has an average length of stay of four to five months.
The psychiatric center has 390 employees with another 160 employees at the state's 192-bed Sex Offender Treatment Program secure facility located on the psychiatric center grounds.
The psychiatric center, mirroring a pattern seen at other health care facilities in the North Country, is struggling to fill nursing positions.
The facility is currently down 10 nurses and would need another six to reopen a second children and youth residential unit.
"I thought it was important to follow up on the roundtable discussion we had with the commissioner and gather more information. This visit helped me do that, and I appreciate the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center executive staff for taking time to meet with me and provide information that will be helpful moving forward," Assemblywoman Jenne said.
"We know the steps we can take to help children and youth address their mental health needs today can benefit them, their families and the communities they will call home in the long run. That makes it critical to make sure we have programs in place that can meet the need in the North Country," she stressed.
Assemblywoman Jenne reiterated it's critical to keep existing services in the North Country and to increase care in a structured way to make a serious impact on reducing the current high utilization rates in the region.
"I've said it before, but it is worth repeating. There are no simple or inexpensive solutions to addressing the needs of our kids with mental health treatment needs. But we know the costs will be far higher - both fiscally and on our society - if we don't address those needs now," she stressed.