BANGOR — Applause echoed off the vaulted wood ceiling in the Bangor Mental Health Institute auditorium Wednesday in response to speakers who urged state leaders to slow down the movement of BMHI patients to the community.
An estimated 200 residents, legislators, city officials, mental health workers, patients and family members came to the 100-year-old institution for a three-hour public hearing with Melodie Peet, commissioner of the Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Substance Abuse Services.
The department recently announced plans to reduce BMHI from 158 to 105 beds, a proposal built around the discharge of 40 patients and the elimination of 62 jobs by June 30. An additional 40 patients were judged candidates for discharge during assessments by treatment teams last summer.
Concerns voiced Wednesday centered on the pace of downsizing and the number of supervised residential programs ready to absorb discharged patients. Mental health care consumers who lined up at the microphone spoke of waiting lists for therapists and programs and a dire shortage of psychiatrists.
Bangor Area Shelter Director Dennis Marble offered statistics on the 1,900 people who sought help at his agency last year, about 55 percent of whom showed up suffering from mental illness, substance abuse, or both.
The department provided a list of new services added from 1995 to 1997 in the counties served by BMHI, including seven psychiatric group homes in Bangor, Hampden, Ellsworth and Milbridge, and several emergency respite homes in Aroostook County.
In an effort to add to that list, the state plans to solicit proposals next month for new group homes and apartments.
“No one is going to move out of the hospital until the right resources for their clinical needs are out there,” said Peet, who also reassured her audience that BMHI will continue to exist.
The hospital’s mission has been evolving for years, she said, since the days when it housed 1,000 patients. She characterized the changes as driven by a sense of duty, not potential budget savings.
“When we’re talking about people who don’t need hospital care, we have a responsibility — a clinical responsibility, a moral responsibility, whatever you want to call it — to move them out to the community,” she said. “We owe that to them. Living their lives in state hospitals is something people did when we didn’t have alternatives.”
Alternatives should be available, agreed City Councilor Joseph Baldacci, but until they are, movement should be cautious. “We think a delay makes a lot of sense to avoid having people fall through the cracks,” he said.
His request found support from both BMHI patients and staff.
“When we focus on these optimistic plans to get people into the community, we’re not being realistic,” said a hospital psychiatrist.
Brian McCarthy, a patient at BMHI for the past six months, also stressed the importance of keeping hospital services available to those in crisis.
“If you shut down beds and lay off workers, what are you going to tell someone who’s suicidal or homicidal? Come back tomorrow?” he asked.
Others with mental illness asked for something simpler: inclusion in the process of mapping the hospital’s future. “I’d like to introduce you to another concerned party, and that’s the consumer,” said Jerry Morris Jr. “We’re not hamsters, we’re humans. We need to be included in this.”
There was some difference of opinion at the outset of the hearing about what will be done with the information collected.
“Despite what you’ve heard or read … this is not a done deal,” said Rep. Joe Brooks, D-Winterport, who asked for the forum along with Rep. Tarren Bragdon, R-Bangor, and Bangor City Council members. Local representatives said they were not made aware of the latest downsizing plan before it was announced.
But Rep. Jane Saxl, D-Bangor, questioned the department’s openness to other opinions. “I think you are presenting us with a fait accompli, and you want the Legislature to ratify it,” she said.