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Editorial: Making space for mental health rehabilitation

This month, a proposed forensic rehabilitation facility for people with mental illness has faced strong opposition by the Bangor community. The fenced facility would house up to 21 patients, who would occasionally leave the facility. Sources of the opposition hinge on questions of safety. Bangor community members have cited concerns about the location of the facility on the residential Hogan Road.

While every potential facility will come with different concerns, the situation in Bangor echoes a surprisingly persistent dialogue. Most people can agree that helping at-risk community members is a noble and worthy cause. Helping these people take care of themselves improves their individual lives and the well-being of the community. But “helping” goes beyond a one-time donation to a charity or wearing an awareness bracelet.

For people with mental illness to thrive, they need support on many levels. This includes the individual level of having family and face-to-face support, but also the larger support of their community and government. This necessitates acceptance of their right to be in public and live in safe places, like the proposed facility in Bangor. Rather than immediate accusations of supposed dangers, there should be education and public involvement.

Isolation is a huge problem for people trying to reintegrate into their old lives. This applies to anyone who has been displaced recently — including people released from prison, long-term treatment psychiatric facilities or combat zones. People in these situations should be embraced by their community. Instead, too many communities default to pushing out care facilities, stating they “don’t want it here.”

This excuse is all too common in any cities with proposed psych facilities, as well as other “undesirable” services. But if every community decides to put them elsewhere, where do these facilities go? They can’t be outsourced to the most remote locations. This is too reminiscent of the heinous neglect that resulted from the old way of treating mental health patients, in psych wards and institutions. They must be built, too, to deal with fluctuating populations and increased need in different areas.

The proposed facility in Bangor is now facing a moratorium to halt progress in its development while the community waits for more details on the project. Governor Paul LePage has tried to push this through with little community input — another failing on the way we handle these situations. Communications should be as open as possible. Community members will inevitably have questions and concerns, many of which could be soothed by a truly open public forum.

Having a mental illness should not entail being pushed from place to place, unwanted and viewed as nothing but a tragedy and a threat to the community. If we take the time to ask and answer questions, and take some responsibility for the well-being of the public, we can alleviate the tensions rising in towns and cities across the country.

The simple truth is, these facilities need to go somewhere. In the absence of safe places for these people, there is increased risk for dangerous living conditions and situations. These facilities do part of the job that the public cannot — giving patients somewhere to be, assisting them in day-to-day life and setting up further opportunities. Since the public cannot take initiative to do this work, it falls on centers and institutions to pick up the slack. Why won’t we let them?

If we truly care for those members of our community with mental illness, we can’t try to sweep them under the carpet. These people have all the right to be visible and in our communities — right here.

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