6:00 AM EDT, April 25, 2011
Community meetings don't usually attract the disinterested or curious. The average person has a busy enough schedule, so such events tend to be packed with vocal opponents of whatever is being proposed.
At least that's the kindest explanation available to excuse the recent outbreak of community-based hysteria involving Sheppard Pratt Medical Systems' proposal to turn a Ruxton mansion in an upscale rehabilitation facility to help those under treatment for mental illness make a transition back to living at home.
Because if Ruxton believes their "family" neighborhood currently lacks eight people (the most that will ever occupy the planned rehab center) diagnosed with a mental illness, then they are — to put it mildly — delusional. The only difference here is that the handful of folks who would be living on Labelle Avenue would be supervised and receiving treatment.
How dare opponents compare the neighborhood's "plight" to the recent controversies involving group homes in communities like Woodlawn and Randallstown. What arrogance. Those facilities generally serve juvenile delinquents who have committed serious crimes, and the communities involved have been forced to embrace a lot more than one or two of them.
Sheppard Pratt is a highly respected private, non-profit mental health care provider. Its main campus on Charles Street is less than two miles from the site in Ruxton. It's the kind of place where millionaires and celebrities often go when they are suffering from depression, bipolar disorder or a host of similar maladies.
No sexual offenders, no criminals, no people with a history of violence would ever be housed at the rehab center. Could the rest of Ruxton say the same?
It isn't as if the occupants would be poor or even middle class. These are self-paying customers. In other words, this is exactly where most Ruxton residents would want to go if they required mental health treatment.
This much criticism is probably deserved: Officials at Sheppard Pratt did not do a very good job of reaching out to the community. Proponents should have been talking to community leaders and local elected officials before they signed a contract on the property two weeks ago — if only to educate them on the nature of their plans.
Nevertheless, exactly where would the residents of Ruxton prefer such a transitional facility be placed? Name a residential area that isn't a "family neighborhood." It's clear some Ruxtonites simply don't want it in their own backyards, and that's just not a good enough excuse. Federal and state housing laws prevent discrimination against this sort of facility for a reason.
One of the tragedies of mental health care in America is the stigma and discrimination surrounding it. Yet a serious mental illness will affect one in four families, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. It can't simply be shoved aside.
No doubt there are many in Ruxton who quietly have no problem with Sheppard Pratt's plans. They aren't launching Facebook pages of neutrality or tweeting their lack of anger in cyberspace or ferociously heckling their indifference at public meetings.
Still, this is a community filled with a lot of wealthy people who are accustomed to getting their way. When the Baltimore light rail system was built, they made sure a stop wasn't created in their neighborhood. The Ruxton Road exit from the Jones Falls Expressway has one way on and one way off to discourage non-local traffic.
But even they can't hide the reality of mental illness, which doesn't care that your spouse is a CEO or your family has an 8-figure stock portfolio. Perhaps local residents should do what one advocate for the mentally ill has suggested — take the time to meet the people who would be living at the facility and discover what their treatment is about.
If they do, it's not the executives at Sheppard Pratt but opponents who are likely to feel ashamed for their behavior. These are not outsiders to be feared, they are just people who are recovering from an illness, and they deserve the community's respect and tolerance.
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