Point of View

The sacred trust of Dorothea Dix

March 27, 2013 

The hasty, last-minute deal to lease the Dix land to the City of Raleigh at below fair market value ignored the needs of people with mental illness.

Parks are good, and there are an abundance in Raleigh and Wake County. Wake County is home to 152 parks, with three state parks having a land mass of over 73,000 acres. The city of Raleigh alone boasts 9,000 acres of park land. For example, Lake Johnson and Lake Wheeler, both within 4 to 6 miles of the Dix campus, have over 800 combined acres of lake and 450 acres of land. Another park on the Dix site would be a wonderful addition, but not without fair compensation.

Much is being said about the state’s need to honor its contract with the City of Raleigh in the wake of a Senate committee’s vote to revoke the signed lease between the two entities. Though I agree that it is important for people to keep their word and honor their commitments, there is a long history of broken promises to people living with mental illnesses.

In 2003, the N.C. General Assembly and state officials promised that community mental health services would be in place and available before state hospital beds were removed as part of state mental health reform. It’s 10 years later, and we are still waiting for those community services – yet North Carolina has eliminated over half of its public psychiatric beds. We now have one of the lowest number, per-capita, of public psychiatric beds in the nation.

In fact, in January the total number of patients in our state psychiatric hospitals was 792. Compare that with the 1,707 population in 2003. Since that time, budgets for mental health services have continually declined and services have decreased.

What is happening to people who are not getting adequate services? Emergency departments across the state are being flooded. In just three months, from January through March 2012, more than 140,000 people with a diagnosis of MH/DD/SAS were admitted to emergency departments in N.C. And this number is low because data for local crisis center admissions are not available.

An estimated 10,000 severely mentally ill people are in N.C. jails and prisons. Law enforcement and corrections officers across the state are being forced to become caretakers for people with serious mental illnesses. This is a job they are not prepared to perform. Jails and prisons are not therapeutic environments for people who are mentally ill.

What is left of the Dix land is a sacred trust resulting from the efforts of a remarkable woman, Dorothea Dix. Consider whether she would have approved a deal that did not result in fair market value and without a specific requirement to direct the funds to mental health services? I believe the answer is a resounding no.

Raleigh is a progressive city with remarkable people. I challenge them to do the right thing. More than 60,000 seriously mentally ill people reside in Raleigh and surrounding Wake County communities. They are struggling to survive because the state has dismantled the safety net of services without replacing them.

A new deal for a portion of the Dix land at fair market value will not solve the problem, but it would help.

Gerry Akland of Knightdale is president of NAMI Wake County.

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