PLATTSBURGH — Of Harry Cook’s many accomplishments during his career in mental-health services, finding a new home for local adult services has been one of the most rewarding.
Cook, who will soon retire as chief executive officer for Behavioral Health Services North in Plattsburgh, was instrumental in helping to move the agency’s adult-services program from its tight quarters on Broad Street in Plattsburgh to its new expansive facility in Morrisonville.
“There’s no perfect time to back off, but this seemed like the perfect time,” Cook said of his decision to step down as the agency begins a transformation to a more global health-care program at the new site.
“This facility is perfect for our community,” he said of the former elementary school. “We’ve been trying for over a decade to find a more suitable home, and this time, it has worked. This is a wonderful building where we can offer whole wellness.”
Mental illness has historically been looked at separately from physical illness, but the new building will allow Behavioral Health Services North to incorporate primary-care offices for clients to supplement their mental-health care.
“The life expectancy of a person with mental illness is 25 years less than the
average life expectancy,” Cook said. “We have to help our clients manage their health in a holistic way, help them live full lives and fulfill life’s goals.”
Battling the chronic illnesses of the mentally ill will also translate into enormous savings in health-care costs by directing patients into proper care settings and away from the more traditional and costly emergency-room visits, he added.
Cook was raised in West Central Pennsylvania and took an early interest in the sciences and sociology. He graduated from Penn State and gained his first experience in helping those in need through volunteer work on housing projects in the poverty-stricken communities of Philadelphia.
“I really liked that experience,” he said. “I was a rural kid with very little experience in the big city. It was a fascinating opportunity for me.”
From there, Cook became involved with the Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program and worked on housing-rehab projects in Manhattan’s East Harlem. The experience was especially rewarding because he lived with a family in the tenements and learned first hand what living in poverty was like.
He then took a job as a rehab therapist at a maximum-security hospital, where he gained experience in working with mental illness in the penal system before continuing his education with a graduate program in social work at Rutgers University.
He began his formal career with a couple of positions in New Jersey child-care clinics, where he was able to be a part of a transition from institutionalized care to managed care in community settings.
“Most of these kids never thought of themselves as independent adults,” Cook said of the youngsters who were coming of age at a time when more opportunities were available to them.
THE RIGHT SETTING
He steadily moved toward more administrative duties, which led in 1989 to accepting the position of executive director at Behavioral Health Services North, which was then named the Northern New York Center for Mental Health Care.
“It was a time when I didn’t want my kids growing up in suburbia,” he said. “I started looking for a more rural area that had similar job opportunities. I’d hiked in Vermont, skied in Vermont. When this position came up, I applied for it, and here I am.”
Cook praised the support he has received from staff and from the Board of Directors. He is especially proud of the center’s Psychiatric-Rehabilitation Program and the Adventure-Based Learning Program.
He believes the future is bright for mental-health services and sees continued advancement in care for people with mental illness.
“You have to have your ear to the ground and understand what the changes are,” he said. “You have to have an organization in place that responds to change, and I believe that’s what we have here.”
He also likes the direction health care is heading in as a whole, including the Medical Home concept that coordinates care from hospital to doctor’s office to the home setting to provide continuity of care for patients.
In the late 1950s, more than 100,000 people in New York state were hospitalized with mental-health problems. Today, there are fewer than 7,000 people hospitalized in state hospital programs.
Treatment now focuses on providing care within the community, including brief stays in hospital mental-health units.
It’s a different world for people in need of services, and Cook has been an integral part of making sure people of the North Country receive the care they deserve.
Cook has set his retirement date for the end of the year but will continue to provide assistance to Behavioral Health Services North during any transition.
He said he plans to take things easy, including more opportunities to fish, spend time with his wife, Cathy, and visit his children, who live out of town.
Email Jeff Meyers: firstname.lastname@example.org