Recent news reports that the Department of Mental Health has ordered the elimination of 62 jobs at the Bangor Mental Health Institute and a reduction by a third of its beds available for the mentally ill have sent shock waves through many parts of our community and our region of Eastern and Northern Maine. That is why the Bangor City Council on Dec. 22 unanimously endorsed a resolution I sponsored to hold public hearings on the BMHI cuts (scheduled for 4 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 15, at the BMHI Auditorium) and to call on the state to delay implementation of these cuts until actions are taken to address the concerns of the city of Bangor.
Progressive and compassionate mental health policies deserve our support. Persons suffering from mental illness and their families must be treated with equal dignity and respect as anyone else. In a free society they must be allowed to live in the least restrictive settings that they can in safety. Safety for themselves and for the public. But I do not consider as compassionate nor safe a policy that does little for the person who jumps off the Bangor-Brewer bridge, or freezes in a park in the winter or hangs themselves in their apartment.
The King administration’s decision to further downsize BMHI by a third will only create additional burdens on the city of Bangor and neighboring towns in dealing with mentally ill persons who are either homeless or inadequately cared for in a noninstitutional program. It is estimated that at least a third of the homeless population is believed to be adults with a severe mental illness. Sadly and ironically on the day the BMHI cuts were announced a statewide commission on homeless issues called for $3 million in more funding for homeless shelters due to larger numbers of persons with mental illness (and substance abuse problems) on the streets of Maine. In addition, it is estimated that one in 14 jail inmates have a mental illness. Neither homeless shelters nor jails nor the streets are adequate mental health treatment facilities. The present situation serves neither the safety concerns of the general public nor the needs of the mentally ill. It must also be noted that the demand for BMHI services has increased dramatically over the past year.
Admissions in 1997 were up by about 100 patients with a total of 319 admitted through November 1997. Of that number, 73 were readmissions and several were readmitted many times. Further downsizing only heightens the burdens left to the residents and taxpayers of Bangor and our region of Eastern and Northern Maine.
The people of Bangor and of Maine want compassionate common-sense policies that balance the needs and wants of those suffering from mental illness, the concerns of their families and the safety and the concerns of the general public. BMHI is a vital part of the mix necessary to achieve a better balance.
The same trends we lament in Maine have been seen across the nation as a whole. A 1990 report by the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill identified a multitude of crisis affecting treatment for the mentally ill. Specifically, the report found that:
1. There are more than twice as many people with schizophrenia and manic-depressive psychosis living in public shelters and on the streets than there are in public mental hospitals.
2. There are more people with schizophrenia and manic-depressive psychosis in prisons and jails than in public mental health hospitals.
3. Increasing episodes of violence by seriously mentally ill individuals are a consequence of not receiving treatment.
4. Large numbers of professionals in the mental health field have left the public sector and indigent patients with serious mental illnesses.
Right here in our state over the past 20 years the administrations of four governors of both parties have aggressively pursued a de-institutionalization policy that has seen patient numbers at our state institutions drop by more than 70 percent. In many ways the lives of many of the mentally ill have improved. But there is also a large number who have fallen through the cracks and who end up in our streets; who will not cooperate with treatment programs, or have become violent. It is the right time for Gov. Angus King and his administration to call a halt to further BMHI cuts for at least a year or two and to use that time to restructure and review our state’s mental health policies, programs and spending and to meet with communities across the state to address their very legitimate concerns.
In early 1996 after the brutal murder of two Waterville nuns at the Convent of the Servants of the Blessed Sacrament, Bangor Daily News Editorial Page Editor A. Mark Woodward wrote that it was time to restructure our mental health system and review how it affects the lives of some of Maine’s most vulnerable citizens. Woodward wrote that King should do it not because of the money involved, not because of bureaucrats in Augusta or Bangor, nor to meet the letter of the law in consent decrees for the courts. “For once, Governor, Maine should do it for the right reason: the welfare of the patients.”
We still should and We still must.
Joseph M. Baldacci of Bangor is a member of the Bangor City Council.