For too many years, society ignored state psychiatric hospitals and their patients.
Often tucked away in rural areas, the hospitals were easy to avoid, and many patients were locked up and forgotten. As a result, the public paid little, if any, attention to state mental health programs or institutions.
People no longer seem so bent on keeping these mental hospitals out of sight and out of mind.
Unexpectedly large crowds turned out this month for the first two public hearings on the fate of three central Maryland state hospitals for the mentally ill that are being considered for closure -- Spring Grove in Baltimore County, Springfield in Carroll County and Crownsville in Anne Arundel County. A hearing scheduled a week ago at Carroll Community College never got started because an overflow crowd of 200-plus people created safety concerns. That meeting is being rescheduled. Then this week, 75 people attended a Baltimore County hearing.
Admittedly, concern for the mentally ill is not the sole reason many of these citizens are showing up for these public hearings. Other agendas are at play, too.
The public employee unions are concerned about their members losing jobs as the role of state hospitals continues to decline. Some people who live near these facilities -- particularly those near South Carroll's Springfield -- are worried that the state will transform the vacant grounds into a prison or juvenile detention facility. Some people are also questioning whether reducing the number of state hospitals is in the long-run interest of the state's mentally ill residents.
Rather than basing treatment for the mentally ill in hospitals, Maryland -- like many states -- is increasingly treating them in the community. Closing hospitals is but a small part of the solution and should happen only after a comprehensive and coordinated network of services is in place to handle the needs of the seriously mentally ill.
As the state Mental Hygiene Administration transforms a traditional hospital-based system into a community-based one, the focus must be on the needs of the mentally ill. State officials should welcome this community participation and be cognizant of such issues as jobs and the community impact of their decisions. But at the forefront of myriad concerns must be the evolution of a health-care system that is responsive and accessible to those needing psychiatric treatment.