Four Years After Tragedy, Bed-Stuy’s Mental Health Care Still in Decline

Home Brooklyn Life Four Years After Tragedy, Bed-Stuy’s Mental Health Care Still in Decline


Interfaith Medical Center in southern Bed-Stuy. Michael Copley/The Brooklyn Ink

There’s a pattern to these things. A mental illness goes untreated and then tragedy
strikes. The public is roused to indignation over the deficiencies in the health care
system in their community. But before long, the attention and scrutiny fade and the
system languishes again under diminishing funds.

In 2007, Khiel Coppin, an 18-year-old Bedford-Stuyvesant man with a history of mental illness, was shot and killed by police during a confrontation at his family’s apartment.

The killing focused attention on the state of the health care system in Bed-Stuy as
Community Board 3 pointed to the system’s failure to intervene on Coppin’s behalf.

“There needs to be more centers placed throughout the community that are equipped to handle emergencies in a timely manner,” CB3 wrote in a 2009 report, in order to avoid “instances like the tragic shooting of Khiel Coppin.”

The board estimated that of the roughly 142,000 residents living in the district, more than 10,000 suffer from a mental illness and 5 percent “experience serious psychological distress.” The percentage suffering from serious psychological distress was close to national averages, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

In the 1970’s, New York and most other states across the country shut down most of their insane asylums as a reform measure designed to integrate the seriously mentally ill into communities. The plan, however, also called for community support services.

Four years after Coppin was killed and community leaders identified a need for more resources, the quality and availability of care in Bed-Stuy has only gotten worse, according to Edna M. Johnson, chairwoman of the board’s health and social services committee.

“We have really depleted in our health care services,” Johnson said. “It may be over the last 10 years, but over the last five definitely.”

Johnson blames the deterioration on a lack of money. The city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has seen funding reductions of $169 million since 2009 and expects to be down $56 million in fiscal year 2012, a 3.5 percent decrease from 2011, according to a report the agency submitted to the City Council in May.

Johnson points to a vacant clinic that was supposed to open last year on Fulton Street, “right in the heart of Bedford-Stuyvesant,” as an example.

“There’s a brand new building sitting there – sitting there,” Johnson said with
irritation, “and it has not opened as of yet. It should have opened a year ago. Funding is the hold up.”

Dr. Joseph F. Ewa, a psychiatrist who has worked in Bedford-Stuyvesant for more than 30 years and who now practices at Interfaith Medical Center, a hospital in southern Bed-Stuy, said there’s “a desperate need” in the neighborhood for new mental health clinics to replace the ones that closed, like Brooklyn Care Works, an outpatient psychiatric clinic that shuttered around 2007.

As the smaller facilities disappear, the burden of treating the neighborhood’s mentally ill falls mostly on Interfaith and the neighborhood’s other hospital, Woodhull Medical Center. Yet despite the increased need, Interfaith had to scrap its mobile crisis team because of a lack of money, according to several doctors who called the program a cornerstone of community treatment.

Now the future of the hospital itself is cloudy. Hospital spokesmen declined to comment, but Johnson said that as far as she can tell, the prospects for Interfaith are only getting worse, which will have serious consequences for the neighborhood, she said.

“Over that last couple of years, funds have been taken away and a lot of the hospitals are in trouble,” she said. “Interfaith is having trouble staying open, and they service a lot of those mentally challenged people. So that’s going to be a devastating hit on the Bedford-Stuyvesant community if that hospital closes.”

Dr. Pascale Kersaint, medical director of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Family Health Center, a general health clinic on Fulton Street, agreed in an email that “behavioral health care has worsened in the past few years due to diminished resources in a neighborhood with high stressors.”

“I’ve got a guy who is mentally challenged,” said Johnson. “He calls me – and he goes to one of the hospitals in question here – and he says, ‘they gave me an appointment and I go and they say, oh, we can’t see you today, come back another day.’”

“Mentally, that’s not good for him,” she said.

“People are suffering,” Dr. Ewa said, and it will take a “strong desire” on the part of
local leaders to improve the system.

Johnson agrees, but contends her board is in a frustrating position on the health care front. Local hospitals mostly ignore the board’s invitations to collaborate, she said.

CB 3 can “call on [the hospitals]” for large health forums, like the one planned for the spring, “but that’s not good because it’s not something that’s ongoing. It’s a one-shot deal,” said Johnson. “One-shot deals don’t work because you’ve got people that need ongoing services day in and day out. It’s always too late when [the hospitals] get on board.”

“We know we have sick people out here,” she said, “Just look at the crime. It’s not about poverty. It’s about real mental health issues. And they need to be addressed constantly.”

“There are so many issues to be addressed,” Johnson continued, “and for volunteers, we’re doing the best that we can. We’re dancing as fast as we can. There’s no way that a once-a-month committee meeting and a once-a-month board meeting is going to be able to address all of these issues. So there’s only so much that we can do.”

Of Coppin’s death and the neighborhood’s response to it, Johnson said, “it’s like anything else that happens, [a] kid gets shot, we raise hell for a while and then it disappears.”

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