Opinion

Proposed psychiatric hospital in Templeton is a beacon of hope

dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Bigotry, ignorance, fear and heartlessness — these are the real reasons some vocal residents of Templeton don’t want a new mental health facility in their town.

So they’ve appealed the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission’s approval of a 91-bed psychiatric hospital across the street from Twin Cities Community Hospital. The Board of Supervisors will hear the appeal on March 15.

Proposed by former San Luis Obispo Mayor Melanie Billig and husband Harvey, the project is a beacon of hope and healing for literally hundreds of Central Coast families, who today have nowhere to turn locally for voluntary, in-patient mental health treatment.

Our current capacity for in-patient mental health care is limited to a 16-bed county crisis facility in San Luis Obispo — and County Jail, our largest “in-patient” mental health facility. How civilized.

The ostensible reasons for the appeal by “Concerned Citizens Preventing Unintended Consequences”? Templeton isn’t the “right place.” The proposed hospital is “too big.” There aren’t enough patients in SLO County to fill the beds, rendering it a magnet for patients throughout the state.

Translation: “The notion of your ill-begotten riff-raff anywhere near our cloistered homes and white-walled churches is repugnant.”

Let’s do the math, using schizophrenia as the bogey. Some 1.2 percent of Americans are diagnosed as schizophrenic, consistent with experts’ estimates of about 1 percent of the world’s population.

That means SLO County, with a population of about 279,000, is potentially home to approximately 2,790 people diagnosed with schizophrenia. This doesn’t include undiagnosed schizophrenics or people with bipolar disorders or other maladies on the autism spectrum.

Obviously, not all cases require in-patient treatment, but the trajectory of schizophrenia is unpredictable. The need for urgent in-patient treatment always lurks right around the corner. And it saves lives.

So the question is: Where’s the “right place” for a mental health facility that’s so desperately needed by this county’s residents? Apparently, to Templeton’s “Concerned Citizens,” the answer is anywhere but their little God-fearing fortress of charmed-life privilege.

Heaven forbid anyone in their families ever suffers from a mental health issue.

Because if they did, these closed-hearted, self-appointed hall monitors would find themselves southbound on Highway 101, headed to Vista del Mar Behavioral Health Hospital in Ventura, the only such facility in the tricounties area.

You can bet none of these “Concerned Citizens” has ever had to make that trek. If they had, they wouldn’t be trash talking a facility that promises hope for the most afflicted among us — and their families.

These “family values,” conservative “Concerned Citizens” should walk a mile in the shoes of a family with a loved one suffering mental health problems.

Anyone who has been through the mill in SLO County knows that while we have some caring souls, ours is one of the most primitive, incapable counties you’ll find when it comes to psychiatric health care.

I know a local single mom whose 20-something son has had a lifetime of mental health challenges. He recently dropped off the radar. No answered phone calls, no returned texts or emails — for weeks.

She asked everyone, searched everywhere, finally driving to Santa Barbara on a tip from a friend of her son.

After days of combing the city, desperate, bracing for the worst, she chanced a visit to Cottage Hospital’s emergency room. There he was, emaciated, filthy, eyes afire amidst a full-blown psychotic episode.

He was alive and that’s what mattered. She thanked God and handed her son to Vista del Mar in Ventura, because there was nowhere in SLO County for him to go.

For more than a week she juggled her job in SLO County while providing love and personal care for her son, three hours away by car. He emerged whole, clear eyed, resolute it would never happen again.

She saved her son, but the heart-rending, long-distance saga nearly cost her the job she needed to hold everything together. The personal brutality of this trauma scarred her soul and her son’s.

They’re not alone. Every single person in SLO County who needs voluntary in-patient treatment must travel far away to get it. So their families must travel, too, leaving homes, jobs, lives behind.

Unless, of course, they go the law enforcement route, threatening themselves or others with harm, becoming involuntarily remanded to the limited capabilities of County Jail.

This barbarity is what “Concerned Citizens” of Templeton want us to accept as normal.

“Leave us to the comfort of our bigotry, ignorance, fear and heartlessness,” they say. “Go away.”

Build it, I say. Like Jesus would do. Heal minds.

Show “Concerned Citizens” what caring, open hearts and minds look like.

Tom Fulks is a former reporter and opinion writer whose three-decade career included positions with The Tribune, Five Cities Times-Press-Recorder and New Times. He has been a political campaign consultant for many local races.

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