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Nearly 10 years hasn't dulled passion over closing of Harrisburg State Hospital

Written by Ben Allen, General Assignment Reporter | Jun 2, 2015 4:45 AM

(Harrisburg) -- Nearly a decade has passed since the commonwealth's first public facility to house the mentally ill and disabled was shuttered.

The mere mention of Harrisburg State Hospital might make some of its former patients a little anxious. But for others, it was a place that turned their lives around.

So, what is its legacy, and what's the current state of mental and behavioral health care in the midstate?

"So this is the administration building that housed the administrative building that housed the administrative offices for the state hospital complex," says the Deputy Secretary for the state Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, Dennis Merion (I happened to run into him while checking out the grounds).

A couple of state agencies now use the space that was once Harrisburg State Hospital - you have to request a tour. 

"It's an incredible structure. It's historic in nature, and really speaks to the craftsmanship of time past," he relays to me.

"For me it was terrible," says Gina Calhoun. "Any type of closed, locked-in environment is not going to work for me."

Calhoun grew up on 26 acres in Mont Alto, where she was free to go where she wanted.

But she had a very strong fear of getting poisoned, which she says was never really addressed. Instead, Calhoun was ordered to Harrisburg State Hospital.

"You do know I escaped from the hospital and stayed out?"

"Okay, so that probably answers your question. No [it wasn't helpful]."

Harrisburg State Hospital, along with others, inspires a lot of passion. That was the case nearly ten years ago, and it's the case now.

"I coordinated all of these. Most of these closures came at my suggestion," saysa Estelle Richman.

She was first recruited by Governor Robert Casey to close Philadelphia State Hospital in 1990, but ended up staying through both of Governor Ed Rendell's terms, shutting down at least two more state hospitals.

"People shouldn't be locked away. Almost all the research that we have known that happened before and after have said that people thrive better in the community, they become well-adjusted, they become contributing members of society, as long as you're giving them the necessary supports for them to live in the community and you have appropriate housing," she adds.

Richman remembers the pushback - from lawmakers who thought people in their districts with state hospitals would lose jobs, and some family members who saw state hospitals as the best option. At the time, it didn't feel like such a common sense move.

"What were you going to do with the next 30 and the next 30 and the next 30 and the next 30?" says Silvia Hermann, administrator for Cumberland-Perry Mental Health and Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. She says some big questions came out in the mid 2000's.

"You are continually doing these assessments and looking at what are needs in your community. And you know the needs in your community. So we were able to do new program development. Not only for individuals being discharged from the state hospital, but for folks in the community who might need that level of support as part of their recovery.

Now, many agree the system has come a long way. Richman says the state is fulfilling its promises.

"The closures overall I think in Pennsylvania as opposed to the rest of the country have gone well. People are still being followed. This is close to 25 years later for Philadelphia State Hospital, and we still can tell you where those clients are and what they're doing."

The services are more widespread. They aren't as regimented and siloed. You can walk into Holy Spirit Hospital in Camp Hill, Cumberland County, and get acute mental health care, or stay for up to six months in a specially designed unit.

There are more proactive options too, like community counseling.

Gina Calhoun, who escaped from Harrisburg, is now at the national director of Wellness and Recovery Education at the non-profit Copeland Center for Wellness and Recovery. She says the state is far ahead of others.

"It's still not where it should be, but I think that, I'm sorry this comes from personal experience, state hospitals are a thing of the past. I think we have a robust system that we could really support people in community-based settings," adds Calhoun.

However, Estelle Richman, who okayed the shutdown of many of the state hospitals, says the institutions may be needed at some point.

She says: "People should always have choice."

"They should get the services they need as much in the community as we need to, we need to keep our promise and make sure they have supports. And supports may mean anything from 24/7 to checking in with you once a month to make sure everything is going okay."

A handful of state hospitals in Pennsylvania still remain, and some people from the midstate are still in treatment at them. But that's no longer the only long-term option.

For Gina Calhoun, there's a chance for recovery for many.

"I think that the next step in moving our system forward is two-fold. One, to promote peer support more and more, getting people out in the community living life, and to promote psychiatric rehabilitation."

From the outside, there's little that would tell you this was once the site of Harrisburg State Hospital. The history, though sometimes painful for former patients, isn't disappearing inside the building though. And advocates, state officials and former patients all hope the lessons learned will carry through to the next evolution of care.

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