Despite the influence of some distinguished legislators with big hearts, big government has treated community-based mental health organizations with little respect. For example, at North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, we have not received a net increase in government funding for our outpatient mental health services for more than 30 years.
Mental health agencies are disappearing all around us. In late January, the Federation of Employment and Guidance Services (FEGS), a $250 million, 81-year-old health and human services organization, announced it was closing. Last month, word came out that Catholic Charities is giving up their Freeport mental health clinic. In the last few years, 100-year-old Peninsula Counseling Center in Valley Stream and 57-year-old Pederson-Krag in Huntington gave up their mental health clinics; South Shore Child Guidance was taken over by the Epilepsy Foundation; and Long Island Consultation Center in West Hempstead and Roosevelt Counseling and Resource Center, which operated since 1958, shut their doors. More than likely, others will follow.
A key factor contributing to this tragic trend is a poorly regulated managed health care system that is more interested in managing costs than managing care, paying a substandard rate for critical services that save children’s lives.
To make up the difference in big government’s neglect and the insurance industry’s greed, mental health organizations have relied for decades on the compassion and generosity of community members who support the cause. But, despite the good that they do, these people are more than do-gooders. They are smart and selfish. They’re smart because they know that what community-based mental health centers do is cost-effective, saving tens of millions of taxpayer dollars by keeping troubled kids out of costly institutional settings. They are selfish because they know, as one of them stated, “If your child is not healthy, my child is not safe.”
Beyond these attributes, our supporters are empathetic. They look into the eyes of their own children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews and feel a deep connection to all children. Perhaps my greatest influence in joining the field of human services was observing the impact of the kindness of others during my youth.
The father of a close childhood friend died in the 1950s. My friend was six-years-old, decades before “grief counseling” entered our lexicon. I lost touch with him as we grew older, but when his mother died years later, I sent him a note. My old friend, who is a physician today, wrote back. I saved his letter, and each time I read it, it leaves a lump in my throat. He wrote:
“Dear Andy: What a surprise to hear from you! My mom’s death has caused me to spend hours thinking about my childhood. Some of my most fond recollections involve you and your family. Your father was the dad I didn’t have…”
As a child, I observed my parents and other adults in my family carrying out acts of profound kindness and generosity with no fanfare and no expectation of receiving anything in return. I married a woman who came from a similar family, one in which her parents took in their nieces after the death of their mother. Now I have found these people again among our board of directors and community supporters. What they have in common with my family is their empathy.
Government bureaucracies are by definition dispassionate and without empathy. They have rules and regulations. But only in tyrannies do they get to run things. One can only hope that the policies that guide their rules are based in values rooted in the needs of real people.
I know that we cannot rely exclusively on government to take care of us; we must rely on one another. If we allow empathy to slip away under the cover of economic survival, we’re in trouble. The demise of empathy would be the most perilous consequence of the fragile economy.
Let’s take care to preserve empathy. When all else fails, it’s all that we have to maintain a humane society.
Andrew Malekoff is the executive director of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, which provides comprehensive mental health services for children from birth through 24 and their families. To find out more, visit www.northshorechildguidance.org.