Discussing mental health in the Finger Lakes with Margaret Morse

In 2018, the CDC produced new, shocking data that showed a 30 percent increase in suicide rates over the last two decades. That increase prompted a lot of discussion, dialogue, and ideas about what could be done differently to improve mental health treatment, services available, and remove stigma. Those efforts are now being realized in a number of unique, exciting ways in Seneca County.

Director of Community Services Margaret Morse joins Josh Durso on Inside the FLX to discuss the world of mental health, substance abuse, and much more.

Asking the right questions about mental health services in the Finger Lakes

Reaction was swift throughout the region when Finger Lakes Health officials said recently that they were seeking permission from New York state to shutter a behavioral health program in Yates County.

Of the unit in Penn Yan, Brittney Christensen, a registered nurse speaking on behalf of a community organization opposed to the proposed closure, said it sent the wrong message to the community. Especially to those in need of mental health services. “Apparently, the unit is being closed due to ‘low volumes and reimbursement,’” she said in a letter, which appears on this page. “Essentially, reporting to our community that our mental health is not financially beneficial to those making these decisions.”

Her point: That mental health services are essential if we want to de-stigmatize mental illness. Furthermore, the services are necessary if we want those who suffer from mental illness to be contributing members of society. “[It] ultimately portrays the detested stigma that if you suffer from mental illness you are less likely to be a contributing member of our society,” she said.

Christensen raises valid points especially in regards to predicting mental health treatment, insurance coverage or the total cost of necessary services to address mental illnesses.

Lara Turbide, spokesperson for Finger Lakes Health, said in an email that, “As with any service changes, significant consideration is given to community need, volumes, and financial viability.” She added that there would be “no closure of the unit until the OMH and DOH provide such approval.” She went on to note that FLH has merely started the process, requesting to discontinue services. Turbide also noted that Finger Lakes Health is engaged directly with regulatory agencies for the appropriate steps related to the request of closure.

She said that volumes were regularly in the single digits, with some days having no patients at all. Turbide also noted that approximately 40 percent of patients served were from other counties. Another point Turbide makes is that there are several other inpatient psychiatric units operated by other area health systems also operating below capacity in the region who can and are willing to accept referrals.

“If we do close the inpatient psychiatric unit at Soldiers & Sailors, we, Finger Lakes Health, will continue to make referrals as clinically appropriate to other area facilities and will continue to offer out-patient care at the John D. Kelly Center in Penn Yan,” Turbide said.

When the discussion centers around “low volumes” or utilization rates, a lot of assumptions are made for entire communities. And unfortunately, when the debate is started, we all too often fall into the habit of asking: Why are we doing this? Instead of asking the more-important question: Why is this service or this thing underutilized?

If “community need, volumes, and financial viability” are the “factors” at play when a decision like this is being made, how do they rank? Do they all represent an equal 33 percent share? Or does one outweigh another?

The assertion that community need dictates fewer available services, instead of more, is a statement based not in fact or reality. If a company or business, wants to assess community need by simply counting the number of folks who pass through their doors, that’s fine. But let’s not confuse that for actual community need. That’s not a scientific analysis of any given community. Especially rural ones, that often are lost in the shuffle of verified data collection as it is.

Last summer the Centers for Disease Control released a damning report, which showed a 28.8 percent increase in suicide between 1999 and 2016 across New York. Even more concerning: The fact that the CDC found that more than half (54 percent) of people who died by suicide weren’t diagnosed with a known mental health condition.

Again, as communities in the Finger Lakes, we need to ask ourselves why programs or services like these are underutilized, not why we operate them if they see low turnout or utilization.

Balancing good morals and policy in 2019

What do we do when good, well-intended policy has a tangible, negative impact on some groups of people?

If there is one critique our political culture in New York state has made ever clear, it’s that for every action an elected official or political party takes, there is a clear, negative impact on another group.

Why have we allowed our politics to devolve into these sweeping, broad, often shortsighted solutions that don’t yield a real benefit in the long-term?

As far as New York is concerned, I’ve railed in this space and on various other platforms against policies or legislative efforts — such as the Downtown Revitalization Initiative. In fact, despite the net good it does for communities in Upstate and the Finger Lakes — which see money that otherwise would be directed to communities Downstate — I’ve said numerous times that a thorough, balanced approach to investing in those Upstate communities would serve the whole significantly better.

It’s a new year, though, and that means a new batch of proposals for residents and taxpayers to evaluate as they brace for impact.

Everyone wants to cite a moral compass when it comes to policy.

For example, let’s look at the plastic bag ban. On the surface, it seems like a sensible idea. We have a plastic, single-use problem, for sure. Plastic is everywhere, along with Styrofoam. This is likely the first step of several, which will include driving our society away from single-use plastic. The end result is desirable, but the means by which we get there is flawed.

While a lot has been made of the government imposing its will on The People, the larger issue seems to be the way it’s sold. It’s factually correct that conservatives — and frankly, people in general — don’t want to be told by the government what they should do or how they should do it. However, when you talk to folks, the debate is much simpler than that.

Here’s an argument I’ve heard far too often: “Well, you should want to preserve the environment and so what if it costs some people more in the process??”

That argument carries over into a number of other policies too. The introduction of the moral element into policy takes the debate away from strength of policy and focuses it solely on the feelings associated with taking the moral high ground. And we see it on both sides of the political aisle.

People can cite moral compass while voting on a piece of legislation or while debating a topic. However, it doesn’t do much to further the cause or debate. Furthermore, it allows the opposing side to invoke the same thing, essentially creating a back-and-forth within the vacuum of a single issue or question.

Moral compass should dictate how we live our lives and, by that same measure, should ultimately decide who is representing us in elected office. Moral compass does not always create the best policy, though, because it does not weed out the negative human components of policy making. For better or worse, moral compass shifts with time. It moves, because people evolve, typically for the better.

Each generation should improve, but we should never fool ourselves into thinking that we’re perfect or completely, 100 percent morally stout.

There are far more impeding or concerning pieces of legislation that have been proposed across the board that have a tangible impact on all sides of the political debate. Plastic bags just happened to be the easiest choice to explain in this column.

The so-called Green New Deal is another example, though much larger and significantly more complex. The moral components of the debate are getting all the attention when a much more constructive debate could be had if they were not invoked constantly and used as primary arguing points for both sides.

The plastic bag ban will have a tangible impact on the people who run grocery stores and businesses in Upstate. Every time we reduce an environmental debate to, “Why don’t you want to save the planet? What kind of horrible person are you?” without looking at the other components of the debate, we’re allowing ourselves to become further entrenched in partisan, party politics.

Students are ready to lead and learn – let’s embrace it

“We should stop forcing kids to do this, that, or the other thing – and let them BE KIDS,” one commenter asserted. Within a few minutes, several others were chiming in, giving the same feedback.

It’s not unusual. We see kids, especially young ones – still moving through elementary school – getting tougher, and tougher schedules. I’ve fell into this narrative before, perpetuating it without fully-understanding what’s in front of me.

In the last three months, I’ve sat down with faculty and students from one local school, which is far from unique – to discuss programs that are taking shape, to help students be well-rounded, and also ready for the next steps of their lives.

In December, I had the opportunity to talk with students and faculty about Rachel’s Challenge at Mynderse Academy. It involved students taking the lead – advocating for a better school and community – through their own actions.

It was incredible to see.

This past week, I had the opportunity to sit down three members of faculty from Mynderse Academy to discuss a new program. It’s known as the “School to Career” program, and engages students on an incredibly important topic.

More importantly, it helps them work through a question: What’s next?

This question is important. Dating back to my own time in high school – it didn’t happen until senior year. Typically, it meant months before graduation. There wasn’t a lot of time to prepare, there wasn’t much time to ‘try’ things out, and most of us were left taking a wild guess about the thing that we wanted to do.

I graduated from high school less than 10 years ago.

And now, so much has changed. Students have the opportunity to try different things. This program allows them to work through ideas in their heads, and get experiences that lend to their next step.

Maybe it’s a trade. Maybe it’s entering the workforce immediately. Maybe it’s going to a two- or four-year college to pursue a degree.

It’s different for every student. And the School to Career Program gives them the ability to learn about the path that might be best for them.

You know what else it does? It gives students, who have historically lacked any desire to hang around the Finger Lakes – a reason, through relationships – to make a life here. One cannot understate the importance of that fact. Students have historically lacked a reason to stay. But now, a program like this gives them the chance to build relationships with folks who can become real, local role models.

That’s huge. And it cannot be understated.

Furthermore, getting back to the comment that brought us here – that kids should be ‘left alone’ to ‘be kids’ is laughable. The one thing I’ve learned from these students, and the faculty who encounter them on a daily basis – is that there is no shortage of desire to be the change that we call for each day.

We want to see more engaged young people. We want to see young people engage with our politics, community, and become the next generation of entrepreneurs. That happens through programs like this, which allow students to be prepared.

Think about what would happen if this program didn’t exist. Most students would go away to college – some for the right reasons, others not – and pursue a degree. By the time they are college sophomores or juniors – they may realize that their passion, or a viable career is elsewhere because of their experience pursuing that degree.

It wasn’t unusual when I was in high school and college. I can think of a number of friends in my own circle who went through one, or more, ‘major changes’, or dropped out entirely because they didn’t see the viability that was advertised initially. There were economic factors at play – coming out of a recession – was one of them, but that wasn’t the core issue.

That was inexperience. We didn’t get experiences ‘on the job’ like students are in these School to Career programs. We were given a short list of options, based on grades, personality, and identity, at which point we were told to ‘make a decision’.

I also know students who left the area to pursue something that was right here all along. I went to high school and college with people who are now entrepreneurs elsewhere, because that relationship to the community wasn’t built until they went away to college.

Programs like this prevent all of this from happening, and also prevent students from making a financial mistake that can follow them for decades.

This is the future of education, and students are ready to answer the call – to lead their generation to a better life than the one we had, even just a few years ago.

Read more about the program here, watch the entire interview above, AND subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. While you’re there, rate and review the program. It helps new listeners find it and stay engaged in the Finger Lakes.

Ghosting isn’t new, or unique, but employers will have to address it

After reading countless stories and op-eds in national platforms about the “job ghosting” phenomenon — and also after hearing some feedback from local residents — it seemed time to discuss it.

First, some discussion about how, and why, we got here, and the narratives attached to those questions.

It used to be job seekers had to worry about employers disappearing — or “ghosting” — during the hiring process; now it appears more often that job seekers are “ghosting” or walking away.

It seems there are two competing narratives making headlines most-frequently about this issue. They both water down the discussion about employment quality, work environment, and work-life balance. Folks either blame employees, mainly Millennials, for perpetuating this trend or employers for not treating employees fairly, or with the respect they deserve.

“Young people don’t want to work,” one person told me while discussing this subject about a month ago. This person had spent more than 25 years at one of the most-established employers in the region. From his perspective, he saw enough “young people” come and go that it made him believe young people were driving this problem. When I followed up, by asking what types of jobs these individuals had, they either held entry-level positions or were working through what’s known as a “temp service.”

In his defense, he wasn’t accusing anyone of being lazy, just noticing that those particular young people were oftentimes the ones who walked away. But we can’t have a discussion about “job ghosting” while accounting for these folks the same way we do those who leave ordinary positions. If employed by a temp service, or working an entry-level, perhaps part-time job, if the person feels that they have been treated in such a way that warrants or dictates them taking another opportunity as quickly as possible, that adds nuance.

Not a defense of those who “ghost” employers but something to consider when young people are trying to survive and get by like anyone else.

The flip side involves assigning blame to employers. Admittedly, that connects to the above mentioned nuance, but extending out beyond job type and title, it regularly finds a home nestled somewhere in the debate of wages. Another person, who has worked for another big player in the local employment landscape said it boils down to job description, and it’s evolution as companies downsize.

His explanation, paraphrased: As a company evolves and shifts in size, responsibilities are moved around. Sometimes that means one person or another might see increased responsibility even if not in the initial job description they received. Sometimes they don’t feel properly compensated. Sometimes it makes them feel like they have an advantage when it comes time for a promotion. And sometimes, it makes them feel like they’re more competitive in the marketplace.

He also said that it could be a combination of all three and under the right circumstances, “ghosting” may feel appropriate. But, that shouldn’t be an indictment of employer behavior. Private businesses are free to operate as they see fit so long as their actions are legal. Given New York’s status as an at-will employment state it creates a scenario for employers to walk away as easily as employees.

Do I believe these things are the reason for ghosting in the workplace? None of them singularly. Could they be contributing factors? They could. But, as far as this debate is concerned, the “ghosting” seems more fit to the highly-competitive job market, low unemployment, and lack of educated, trained, and “ready to work” prospects in the local economy.

Some people will ghost an employer because they feel slighted. Others will ghost in pursuit of a better opportunity. Combine that with the desperation that some employers are feeling to get anyone, especially high-quality candidates, in the door as quickly as possible, and it’s easy to see why ghosting has become a phenomenon. Consideration also has to be paid to the fact that more employees are seeking out an increased volume of non-traditional work. Meaning, piecing together a full-time income by working multiple part-time jobs, or freelancing, of which attachment and traditional employment formalities get tossed.

Modern employment is complicated, and even if you’re in a traditional environment, dealing with the challenges of a modern, non-traditional one — and its employees — is going to be a requirement.

This column was originally published in the Finger Lakes Times on Dec. 29, 2018.

IN FOCUS: Words we say really do matter

The words you choose are important. However, the words you say are much more important.

Most regular readers of this column have likely heard about the controversy involving a Rochester television meteorologist, who uttered a racial slur during a live broadcast. He was quickly fired, and the station contends that the decision to fire him happened before Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren called for his termination. Warren also questioned the intent of local media, referencing another piece published by the Democrat & Chronicle, in which a City Court judge’s residency was called into question. She asserted that cultural competency training was needed across the board. The Mayor also invited local media to a not-yet-official event, where this issue would be discussed.

Plenty has been said and written about regarding the meteorologist’s dismissal. His response — including insisting what he said was an accident — has been heavily criticized. The story has evolved into a national one with coverage coming from the likes of the “Today Show” and more. The meteorologist received some support from high-profile media folks who weighed in.

Another incident unfolded in the days following that involved Gov. Andrew Cuomo during an “impromptu gaggle” with the press. An aide asked that reporters give the Governor some space, to which he quipped, “I’ll bring you all up on charges under the ‘Me Too’ movement.” The following day Gov. Cuomo doubled down on the statement after receiving pushback from those critical of the statement. Some outlets across the state ran stories highlighting the irony of his #MeToo joke, coming the same day Andrea Stewart-Cousins was installed as the first female majority leader of the Assembly.

“I think it was an off-hand comment,” the Governor said in a radio interview on Thursday. “I walked into the gaggle and I was assaulted.” He talked about how reporters’ equipment had hit “all parts” of his anatomy. Many folks were not satisfied with that response.

In these two incidents, we have highlighted some of our society’s most difficult and controversial issues — racism and gender inequality. All the side issues that intersect with these two stories, which have gained a lot of momentum, highlight the odd crossroads we have arrived at in society.

The dismissed meteorologist argued that he intended not to offend anyone and that he was not racist at heart. It was a simple mistake, he contended. However, we hear repeatedly that words can hurt people, they do carry consequences, and despite intent, a reaction should be expected when an error occurs.

First off, it would appear that in comparing these two situations, there’s a level of understanding and compassion missing from all parties involved. Mistakes do happen, and making the assumption that intent is the only thing that matters is a reach. In Gov. Cuomo’s case, he seems to be as guilty as some have branded the meteorologist for his lack of understanding about the scope of his comments or the impact of those words.

Secondly, these two situations have exposed differing reasons for why we so desperately need a better method to handle challenges like them when they crop up in our communities.

When the meteorologist was fired, a social media firestorm occurred, and that can follow a person even if they take all the necessary steps to redeem themselves or correct truly reprehensible behavior. When the Governor made his #MeToo remark, despite more coverage than usual, it was largely glazed over. He was free to double-down without meaningful consequence.

As a society — and as individual communities — we need to find the balance between the two responses. We need to do a better job of making sure that actual education occurs and that we de-politicize these issues, which quickly become politically charged. If we want to address the concerns at hand, then we need to get back to basics and address the fundamentals. Whether it’s an elected official, a private employee at a local company or a local broadcaster, the answer is inherently communal: Discussion, education, and proactive behaviors that actually generate change.

This is particularly the case in small communities, where creating change and having these discussions is decidedly easier. We all choose words, but the things we say matter, too. And sometimes the two will simply not reconcile.

This column was originally published in the Finger Lakes Times on Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019.