Now It's Coming to Our Back Yard

COMMENT

March 27, 1994|By ELISE ARMACOST

It didn't take long for news of our new neighbors to make its way through the office.

"Annapolis-based firm opens first mental health day treatment center in Anne Arundel County," it said. But not just anywhere in Anne Arundel County. Here. On the second floor of the Festival at Pasadena, 8131 Ritchie Highway. Right next to The Sun's Anne Arundel County bureau.

A silent "AAAAAAGGGHH!" reverberated from the receptionist's desk, through advertising and back to the newsroom as people imagined the worst -- a wild-eyed patient holding us hostage with a sawed-off shotgun, a constant flow of disoriented people wandering through our office, some depressed soul threatening injury to himself because he showed up after 5 p.m., when the treatment center closes.

And to think we used to complain about the music from the Radio Shack on the first floor.

Here was a real test for the open-mindedness most well-educated, reasonably informed people -- especially those in the news business -- pride themselves on.

We don't have much patience with NIMBYs ("not in my backyard") who can't see beyond their own picket fences. We know homeless shelters, prison boot camps and halfway houses have to go somewhere, and that the horrors people imagine when such projects are proposed almost always turn out to be figments of their overactive imaginations.

But it is so much easier to be open-minded when you're only covering the proposed opening of a mental health treatment center than when you've just discovered one is moving in across the hall. Witness the following comments, overheard as word of the new neighbors made the rounds:

"Can they do that? Don't they have to have a hearing or something?"

"You know they're going to be in here all the time."

"The first time somebody flashes me in the elevator, that's it!"

Of course, some of these comments -- the last one in particular -- were made partly in jest. But people were genuinely concerned.

We want to be reasonable. We don't want to be NIMBYs. We know the need for facilities like this and, once our rational side has a chance to rein in our fears, we chide ourselves for overreacting and falling prey to stereotypes. It's downright unfair to characterize the mentally ill as flashers or Uzi-wielders, and we know it.

Still, we're afraid. Like everybody else.

It's a common and natural reaction, says Jennifer Clarke, a spokeswoman for our new neighbors, the Annapolis-based American Day Treatment Center. The truth is that the patients ADTC will be treating are a lot more like us than we realize.

They might include a fireman disturbed after witnessing a fatal fire, a doctor suffering from too much stress, senior citizens depressed because they're alone and can't do the things they used to do.

"Our patients are middle-class, average people who have had their lives disrupted by some kind of anxiety," Ms. Clarke said. "They seek help, they get treatment, they get back in the swing with life. They're regular people."

Some are coping with problems that frighten us -- Multiple Personality Disorder, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, chronic mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. We want guarantees against disturbed, potentially violent patients, but there are none. No health organization can eliminate risks.

But the risks are extremely small. It's important to remember that. The chances of being harmed by a person from an institution for the mentally ill are less than by someone on the street.

And ADTC sounds as if it does everything it can to minimize the odds of something going wrong.

Patients are assessed the minute they walk in the door; if their condition is deemed too severe for day treatment, they are immediately referred to inpatient care, Ms. Clarke said.

Eleven staff members, including four psychiatrists, are on board during operating hours, and staff members are on call 24 hours a day in case of emergencies.

ADTC has 10 other treatment centers in five states, including five in Maryland. The company has never had an incident involving anything more serious than a patient wandering into a hallway, Ms. Clarke said.

Why should we expect anything different to happen here?

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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