Letter to the Times: Lawrence needs a long-term psychiatric unit

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Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns and letters to the Times written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

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Roughly 55 years ago, I became the first full-time director of the Ballard Center. A dozen years later, I returned to Lawrence as director of the Lawrence Housing Authority and brought the first Section 8 Housing program to the city.

I provide this background to emphasize the point that what happened to me next could happen to anyone, no matter their station in life. I had navigated my 15-year career to this point by subduing my anxieties and fears through the self-medicating process of alcohol abuse. Finally, I became too physically ill to drink any more and my fears/anxieties drove me to a mental health crisis.

My family told me to leave because of my erratic behavior. So, did I become homeless? Not quite. I spent less than a week in a roach-infested apartment with major plumbing problems. Ultimately, because I was too fearful to end my life, I went to the ER at LMH. Shortly thereafter, I began a 40-day stay at the then-existing psychiatric unit at LHM. It was a moderate-sized facility with a multitude of services and a caring and compassionate staff. With the help of Dr. James Hasselle and the psych unit staff, I slowly overcame my fears enough to begin taking medication to ease my symptoms.

So now I was cured and on my way, right? No. I have one of those illnesses known as a “severe and persistent mental illness.” For the next 40 years, I experienced peaks and valleys, and occasional short-term hospital stays of a week or less. So, not cured but significantly better. I began to function again in the community. I have now had a successful marriage of nearly 35 years, and a healed relationship with my adult children. In fact, I recovered enough that I served your children as a substitute teacher for at least a decade. I revived a slumping consumer-run organization and led a 12-step program that dealt with emotional issues. Over the last 35 years, I have tried to be an outspoken advocate on issues related to mental illness in our community.

My point in telling my story to you is to help make you more fully aware that there is a certain segment of every community that has experiences like mine, but they fall through the cracks. I truly believe that a significant minority of our homeless population falls into this category. You can expand mental health center services, build a needed crisis center, provide homeless shelters, campsites and “villages.” None of these will help this particular population of which I was once a part. They cannot or will not access such services because of issues of mistrust, fear and anger or, like myself 40 years ago, they are unable to help themselves.

Until Lawrence is willing to face the “elephant in the room,” this segment of our community will continue to wander our streets because the services they need are not available. We need LMH to reopen its psychiatric unit. I have tried, to no avail over the years, to urge LMH to recognize this need. I’ve been told that our “not-for-profit” hospital could not operate such a unit because “it would lose money.”

I know that there are many contributing factors to homelessness and that severe mental illness is only one subset of that problem. I certainly make no claims to having even half the answer. But I do know this: A long-term hospital stay not only saved my life, it also gave me a life for the next 40 years. It can happen for others, too. A fully functional psych unit could be one piece of the puzzle. As the saying goes, “Pay me now or pay me later.” I’m sure homeless services for the general public who fall on hard times are needed. Those services will not meet the needs of the severely mentally ill, nor will they serve the desires of the community at large.

What do you think?

— Bill Simons, Lawrence

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