Possible expansion of Heritage Behavioral Health Center
Those affiliated with St. Teresa High School have been reaching out to Decatur City Council members expressing their concerns about the possible expansion of Heritage Behavioral Health Center into the vacant building immediately north of the school.
Heritage is the largest provider of mental health services in the region, offers care to those experiencing substance use issues, and provides primary care services. Over 7,000 individuals currently use their services which are located at approximately 10 area facilities. Heritage assists youth and their families at multiple school districts including Argenta-Oreana, Clinton, Decatur, Meridian and Mt. Zion and recently opened a new facility next to Clinton Middle School and High School.
To date, the city has not received any formal plans from Heritage regarding a possible redevelopment project. The city council does not know whether they are relocating north of St. Teresa or whether they are relocating part or all their operations from their main facility downtown. Based on the limited information the city has received, it is unlikely the council will need to take any formal action.
Despite no plans being announced by Heritage, St. Teresa representatives initially indicated that it was “evaluating all avenues present to oppose this project”. St. Teresa has outlined several reasons why they are against a project and have encouraged council members to express their views on a project for which we have no details.
GROWING UP CATHOLIC AND LIVING WITH MENTAL ILLNESS
By way of background, I grew up in suburban Maryland. My Dad was Jewish, my Mom Catholic, and we attended Our Lady of Lourdes Church. My Dad lived with schizophrenia his entire adult life and was hospitalized multiple times for his illness. Despite living with mental illness, he lived his best life thanks to the support of his family, friends, and health care providers. In my first year of college, I experienced a mental health issue for which I was treated with medication. I have been a biology professor at Millikin University since 2005, and I met the love of my life, Mary Garrison, at Millikin. Mary is currently the President and CEO of Heritage Behavioral Health Center. While I will be recusing myself from voting on matters pertaining to Heritage, I will address the stigmatization and defamation of those experiencing mental health and substance use issues taking place in our city.
STIGMA THREATENS HEALTH, SAFETY, AND WELFARE OF DECATUR YOUTH
We are facing a mental health crisis among our youth. Nationally, 17% of youth at any given time experience a mental health issue. One of the greatest barriers to youth receiving treatment is access to care, and a significant barrier to access to care is stigma. Thus, it is disheartening that one of the key arguments against the possible relocation of some or all services offered by Heritage is that it would allegedly threaten the health, safety, and welfare of youth. The reality is the exact opposite. For decades, Heritage has saved countless lives of Decatur residents most in need, and to my knowledge not a single youth has ever been harmed receiving treatment at Heritage. Youth are helped not harmed by care, and the false innuendo about client safety could be considered defamatory both to Heritage and to the 7,000+ clients it serves including youth.
One of the concerns expressed by St. Teresa and its affiliates is the close proximity of its students to individuals in mental health crisis or active substance users. If the students of St. Teresa and their families are representative of the population as a whole, there are dozens of students and family members at the school currently living with a mental health issue, and several others living with a substance use issue. The advantage between school districts using mental health services and having facilities nearby is that students are not stigmatized for seeking assistance and have outstanding access to care. Those youth most in need are getting help in a safe and comfortable environment.
I think back to when I was living with a mental health issue. My friends were aware of it and supported me as I was struggling. Based on the correspondence I received, it does not appear that St. Teresa affiliates recognize that the very individuals they are opposed to having near their school are some of their own students, staff, alumni, visitors, and family members. Furthermore, students, staff, alumni, and family members play a critical role in supporting students most in need.
I thank the school districts of Argenta-Oreana, Clinton, Decatur, Meridian, and Mt. Zion for providing excellent access to care to the students most in need. While affiliates of St. Teresa are lobbying to prohibit Heritage next to its school, other schools already have Heritage facilities next door and use the services of Heritage. As the mental health crisis in our youth continues, it is reasonable to assume that schools that provide greater access to care will see increased enrollments while those that fail to do so will see their enrollments decline.
GOING TO FOOTBALL GAMES WITH MY DAD
One of my favorite things for my Dad and I to do was go to Maryland Terrapin football games. Based on the correspondence I have received from St. Teresa affiliates, my Dad and I would not have been welcomed to watch a game at St. Teresa. My Dad was not a threat to anyone, especially children, but he did not act “normal” to many. The same might be said about the over 10,000 individuals in Decatur currently suffering. Just because one is suffering does not mean they pose a safety threat. Yet all too often in Decatur, stigmatization of those living with mental health and substance use issues, those experiencing homelessness, those in the LGBTQ+ community, and those who are simply different, are the recipients of stigma and intolerance. Thankfully, stigma and intolerance can be overcome with acceptance and love, both of which I will be praying for.