Trying a ‘meeting of the minds’ with the Office of Mental Health


Yesterday’s MAC-OMH Town Hall meeting on licensed and unlicensed housing can be described as interesting, intense and illuminating: everything in it.

No other than Mrs. Moira Tashjian, OMH Director of Housing Development and Support came down from Albany to answer…er…field questions would be a more appropriate description, about that topic.

The attendance was a bit below expected, probably due to the freezing cold. By the way, there’s a flu going around. At least three people I know have come down with it and were unable to attend the meeting. I call that flu the “sequester threat”. They may be related, after all.

Back to the reporting. Mrs. Tashjian was open and honest in answering the tough questions from the audience; when she did not know the answer to a question, she would say so and not try to evade the situation. At least that’s how I saw it. She also promised to corroborate information and bring it back to us.

The meeting was interesting because of the different points of views on the topic. The issue of licensing was discussed by Mrs. Tashjian from the perspective of services and funding, the audience was more focused on protections and accountability of providers.

It was intense because, well, that’s what happens when ‘the meeting of the minds’ is incomplete. More on that later.

And the meeting was illuminating because it showed what was known and unknown by both the audience and the director of housing about the issue, the conflicting understanding (among everybody) about it, the levels of cooperation that can be achieved between her department and the consumers in the audience, and the steely resolve of the consumers-advocates in pursuing answers and clarity on the issue.

I’ll talk about the final outcome of the meeting at the end of this post. I want to focus now on the problem of reaching an understanding between administrators and the consumers.

‘Why would you want that?’

The question posed by Mrs. Tashjian at some point in the middle of the discussion that sticks the most in my mind is “why would you [the audience] want licensed housing?” She explained that licensed housing is the type where more restrictions are imposed on the resident because, as far as I understood her, it is for consumers still in lower levels of functioning (she didn’t use those words, I just did). I think that is where ‘the meeting of the minds’ broke, at least for me. I think that the question itself shows where the disconnect is.

First, most of us there don’t understand ‘licensed’ housing in the way she described it. For us, the issue is regulation and accountability of providers. She saw the issue as one of what services are provided in one or the other. While some people came looking for information about that, the majority of us went there to find information about the legal distinctions between licensed and unlicensed housing and programs.

That’s the issue Mrs. Tashjian had the most difficulty understanding, that we were not looking for services but to find out what protections each one affords. She was able to address everything else efficiently except that, at least in my view. We are not always looking for services, sometimes we want to know where to go when the service is being denied.

She was pressed to address the issue and pointed at the field offices to go for complaints and the grievance procedures that must be in place in the programs. That’s one of the problems with the unlicensed issue: we are not informed of options, providers are not held accountable for blocking access and, as Mrs. Tashjian said, their field office is made of only two staff members to cover thousands of residents. Come on!

‘He who has an ear…’

I don’t doubt Mrs. Tashjian commitment to helping us and her interest in listening and understanding what our concerns are. Yet, there is a disconnect between what the ‘system’ thinks we need and what we actually need, and it blocks the ability of administrators and providers to listen to us.

Despite all the words about ‘personalized treatment’ and all the committees and consumers’ councils to ‘listen’ to us, the mentality in the mental health system still is that we are this ‘needy’ people that don’t know any better, and ungrateful at that  too because we don’t appreciate all that is ‘given’ to us. It’s not a ‘conscious’ believe; it’s like everything in a culture: ingrained and unquestioned, until that believe is shaken. It’s always painful to have our culture questioned. Usually, something good comes out of the questioning.

This is what I would like them to hear:

First, we are grateful and appreciate the services and the work of those providers who can rightfully be proud of their professional interventions. But don’t forget: we also fought for those services we now have and are a source of job for so many.

Second, we do ‘know better’. We know that the system is ‘broken’ (as stated in the MRT report) because we experience it. Some people pay with their lives or that of others for the ‘benefit’ of getting supported housing because, once they get in, they get abused by unprofessional providers to the point of breaking, or neglected to the point of abject hopelessness.

We want you to hear that getting a service, getting housing is not the end of our path; it should be a new beginning.  For some of us, it has become the end of that path.

We want you to hear that the goal of the State’s mental health system policy is to help us ‘liberate’ ourselves from the shackles of mental illness, not to tied us and make us dependent on that system.

Granted, and the audience agreed with Mrs. Tashjian, there are some people who makes it difficult to help them. But those are, probably, the ones who are either in the midst of ‘episodes’ or maybe the sickest one. Unfortunately, those are usually the ones who, out of making the job more difficult, ankles the work-culture to paternalism, stereotypes and stigma. Hey, we all suffer from those problems, it’s not personal. We can only confront ourselves on those matters.

The big secret

It amazes me how difficult it is for our administrators and providers to internalize that abuses and neglect is the element referred to in the maxim ‘first, do no harm’. For some reason, despite past and present history, despite it having been the reason for the dismantling by Governor Cuomo of the Commission on Quality of Care and Advocacy and his creation of the Justice Center, despite reports in our mainstream media about abuses, no one in the system wants to talk about it; no one wants to acknowledge it. It is as if we were shouting at someone who has no ears.

And the outcome

The outcome of the meeting was that more answers are needed. I think Mrs. Tashjian said she would find more information about the legal difference between licensed and unlicensed housing; also, that she would look into the OMH’s website to see what errors there can be corrected.

I would like for her to look specifically at the fact that the only distinction between licensed and unlicensed housing (“community residence”) is that in unlicensed “there is no rental assistance”. As I told her, the majority of these housing provide such assistance and yet they are classified as unlicensed. Not only that, there is no reference to the fact that regulation and monitoring is not included in unlicensed.

I’m convinced that trying to clarify the difference between licensed and unlicensed is going to show how convoluted these distinctions are; that clarification is near impossible due to the many funding sources requirements. But more important, because OMH doesn’t want us to know that its policies try to unburden the providers from accountability and the only way of doing that is unlicensing. De-regulating the system is the way to unburden the providers. But then, we are left carrying the burden.

Mrs. Tashjian has nothing to do with that, I think. She doesn’t make policy, does she? I think she is going to find things she was not expecting to find, nor wanted to find, if she looks seriously at the issue of licensed and unlicensed housing. It’s an ugly bureaucracy out there.

I wonder if she would be as open with us, as she was yesterday, were her to find out the nasty truth about license and unlicensed.

More to come this week end  on this topic.

Lourdes

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One response to “Trying a ‘meeting of the minds’ with the Office of Mental Health

  1. I’m leaving a comment on my own post. I expressed incorrectly the point in the last paragraph before ‘The big secret’ I said .that ” Unfortunately, those are usually the ones who, out of making the job more difficult, ankles the work-culture to paternalism, stereotypes and stigma”. Reviewing it now, it reads as if i was blaming the people with problems for the stigma in society.That was Never my intention nor my believe. I wanted to say that it is possible that the frustration that workers (low and high levels) experience in their inability to reach their goals of helping people that are difficult to help, can turn into paternalism, etc etc.I hope I clarified that.

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