A teachable moment in Ruxton

Sheppard Pratt's announcement of plans to purchase a residence in Ruxton, near our flagship campus in Towson, has provoked an uproar from a segment of homeowners in this neighborhood. The residence, which will be licensed as a group home, is designed as a transitional living setting for adults who have been treated on a voluntary basis for one to two months at Sheppard Pratt's main facility for conditions such as serious depression and severe anxiety. The "not in my backyard" response from some community members reflects misconceptions and fears about mental illness and its treatments.

These issues raise larger public policy questions and reach to the core of the responsibilities of institutions such as Sheppard Pratt. In our hospital and community rehabilitation programs, we treat individuals from all walks of life — adults and children — most often with a short hospital stay and then ongoing care in the community. Through our system, we operate more than 100 group homes and other community residences safely in many neighborhoods throughout the state. Psychiatric treatment is effective, but individuals with these conditions often require months to recover and resume their lives in the community.

Clearly, federal, state and local laws allow for these homes. The laws were created because, unfortunately, people with disabilities have historically not had guaranteed access to community living. And moreover, a groundswell of evidence supports the therapeutic efficacy of community residences. Those facts are indisputable.

If some neighbors feel that their quality of life is threatened by the existence of a supervised therapeutic group residence, in what other neighborhoods should such a residence be located? Do these neighbors feel that all of the group homes across the state should close and that people with psychiatric disabilities should not have access to community living? Should we reopen the long-stay state-run psychiatric hospitals? Are there truly neighborhoods that should be considered exempt from the federal laws governing fair housing that provide for such homes in all communities? We think not.

Example after example has proven that after initial protests, with dialogue and outreach and then the establishment of the residence, neighbors become neighbors again and are able to work together to ensure the comfort and safety of everyone in the community. Independent studies have shown that property values do not diminish in those communities with the establishment of group homes.

In the case at hand in our immediate community, all is not lost. A number of residents have contacted us privately and said that they are embarrassed by the attitudes, behavior and plans of some of their neighbors to fund and mount a harassment campaign. They are supportive of our plans. We have pledged to work with both segments of neighbors in open, respectful dialogue as this project moves forward.

Central to Sheppard Pratt's longstanding mission is to provide access to behavioral health services to individuals, families and communities. And corollary to that is our responsibility to reduce stigma. We have before us a teachable moment. We can educate families who claim to be afraid for the safety of the community that they have the opportunity to teach their children tolerance and inclusion. This situation presents an opportunity for them to learn that people with mental illness or a history of mental illness can often be the best neighbors.

Our founder, Moses Sheppard, said, "meet a need that otherwise would not be met." Our patients come from every community — rich and poor. Many families, if not most, at some point experience the consequence of a mental illness. It is not "us" versus "them." We are all in this together.

Dr. Steven S. Sharfstein is president and CEO of Sheppard Pratt Health System. His email is XX.

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