BANGOR, Maine — Melissa Wallace walked to the podium clutching an 8-by-10-inch framed photo of her daughter, Jerica.
She turned the frame so the committee members could see. A beautiful young face smiled back, her head cocked to one side in a pose of innocence. It was her high school senior picture.
If that girl had cancer, Wallace said, would you seek to deny her chemotherapy treatment? If her kidneys were failing, she asked, would you refuse to offer dialysis?
What if she had schizophrenia?
“I’m begging, pleading. Do not deny her treatment,” the Belfast mother said Friday in front of dozens who had gathered at Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor to talk about the future of the only public mental health hospital north of Augusta and the one place, Wallace said, that has kept her 24-year-old daughter alive.
There were many others who preceded and followed Wallace to the podium to address members of a statewide work group tasked with deciding the future of the mental health hospital.
There was Sophia Wilder of Orono, who found respite and hope at Dorothea Dix years ago. She said she’s not cured, but she now knows that she’s more than her illness. Dorothea Dix staff members helped her see that, she said.
There was Deborah Ryan, a former employee of Dorothea Dix who has her own family history of mental illness.
“It’s not a warehouse,” she said. “It’s a hospital. Some of these people are too damn sick to be tolerated by anyone else. Don’t turn them away.”
And there was Craig Martin, a current patient wearing a biker’s vest and sporting a ponytail and a graying beard, who said simply, “I really need to be here.”
One by one, over a span of three and a half hours, 35 people got up to speak. With a couple exceptions, every one of them said Dorothea Dix should remain open.
Many who spoke also acknowledged the difficult task in front of the dozen members of the work group, led by Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew.
“Many of these concerns brought up today are the same concerns we’ve struggled with as a group,” Mayhew said after Friday’s public comment session.
Since August, the group that was formed as part of the 2012-13 biennial budget has been meeting to talk about how Dorothea Dix can survive going forward with eroding resources.
Independent of a decision to close the facility or keep it open, Dorothea Dix already faced the reality of operating with significantly fewer funds beginning next year. Earlier this month, Dorothea Dix Superintendent Linda Abernethy said the hospital would stop accepting new patients in order to reduce the number of daily beds.
It’s not the first time Dorothea Dix’s fate has hung in limbo.
The Rev. Bob Carlson, head of Penobscot Community Health Care, said he remembers discussions dating back 40 years about closing Dorothea Dix, then known as the Bangor Mental Health Institute. It was the wrong call then, and until those services are provided elsewhere, closing the hospital is the wrong move now, Carlson said.
Dennis Marble, who runs the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter, said there already are too few beds for mental health patients in Greater Bangor.
“No other agency can do what they’re doing,” he said. “Others would try to step in but they are not well-suited to provide those needs. This becomes just another unfunded mandate for local communities.”
Bangor police Chief Ron Gastia told the group that roughly 80 percent of the calls taken by the city’s police involve a subject with a mental illness, drug abuse or both. Without Dorothea Dix operating as a safety net, his department would be taxed further.
There are private hospitals, such as The Acadia Hospital, in the area, but patients and advocates say the quality of care is simply not on the same level as Dorothea Dix.
Former patient Lonnie Gould said staff members and clinicians at Dorothea Dix offer respect and dignity that he hasn’t seen anywhere else, and he has been admitted to several other hospitals.
And if they don’t end up in a private hospital, advocates say they find jails or homeless shelters or end up on the street.
“All we’re doing is sweeping water,” said Bangor City Counilor Rick Bronson. “We must keep this facility open. Throwing people out on the street with no resources is just unconscionable.”
Dorothea Dix is one of two state-run mental health hospitals in Maine and offers about 50 beds, down from about 70 only a month ago, and provides outpatient services to about 150 others.
The other state hospital is Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta, which has 92 beds and is newer and more modern.
When the 2012-13 state budget levied cuts to mental health services, Dorothea Dix lost $2.5 annually beginning in 2013, although that number is closer to $7 million because state dollars are used to leverage federal funds. Riverview’s budget was not cut.
Although the entire Dorothea Dix discussion is framed around money, Mayhew said the work group’s charge is larger in scope than that. They need to identify the best and most efficient way to deliver services to a population that is severely ill.
But dollars matter, especially in today’s economic climate.
Lydia Richard, a former patient, said she thinks the services provided by Dorothea Dix are essential but she doesn’t believe those services need to cost millions of dollars.
The state’s Dorothea Dix Work Group has until Dec. 1 to present its recommendations to the Legislature, but that report may not have unanimous recommendation, Mayhew said.
Recently, members of the work group were split into two subgroups: one to make the case for keeping the facility open and the other to outline steps needed to close it.
Ultimately, Dorothea Dix’s fate and the fate of dozens or even hundreds of mental health patients in the Greater Bangor area rests in the hands of the Legislature.
Meanwhile, Melissa Wallace is still waiting for a bed for her daughter at Dorothea Dix.
Jerica recently spent more than two days in a hospital emergency room and more time in a local jail because there was nowhere else for her to go. She is currently staying at a private hospital in Portland that her family can’t afford and that her insurance does not cover.
Shortly after Friday’s hearing, Wallace said she values her daughter’s privacy above everything but she said she spoke because people need to see the faces behind Maine’s broken mental health system.
Faces like Jerica. She again held up the picture of her daughter, a photo that is now six years old.
“I have a more recent picture if you want, but this is what she looks like…” Wallace paused for a minute. “When she’s healthy.”