Patients not easy to recognize Riverview chief targets misconceptions

By Keith Edwards
Staff Writer 12/20/2007
from the Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA -- David Proffitt, superintendent of Riverview Psychiatric Center, hears it all the time when talking with Augusta residents about recovery from mental illness.
"They feel Augusta has a disproportionate number of people with mental illness being discharged into the community," Proffitt said Wednesday at a Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce business breakfast. "Some feel it's unfair to this community."

His response: That person you see on the streets of Augusta, in visible mental health distress, is probably not a Riverview patient.

If he or she were a patient at Riverview, Proffitt said, they would be getting the services they need, and a casual observer wouldn't be able to tell the person had a mental illness.

"We're helping these individuals integrate into your community," Proffitt said. "You may see someone walking on the street, and think to yourself, 'They don't look like me' and assume they have mental illness and are a patient at Riverview.

"My question, then, is why isn't that person getting the help they need?"
Proffitt said staff at the new 92-bed, $33 million state-operated mental health facility in Augusta work hard to create a healing environment and assist Mainers in recovering from mental illness.

That's something that hasn't changed at the mental health facility across the Kennebec River from the Statehouse.

Their methods, however, have changed dramatically over the 167-year history of mental health services, which have been offered at the same site for decades under various other names, including, most recently, Augusta Mental Health Institute.
"By today's standards, a lot of things done in that facility before Riverview are considered barbaric today," Proffitt said.

He described the past use of ice baths once thought to shock people out of their mental illness.

And insulin shots were once used to induce shock so workers could analyze and document what patients said just before slipping into a coma, in an effort to gain insight into their illness.

"Today we think that's complete nonsense," Proffitt said. "We did what we thought was the best at that time. Our treatment now goes well beyond that earlier treatment."

He also told the audience of about 30 business owners and other attendees of Riverview's financial impact on the local economy.

Riverview employs 315 full-time employees and pays out $19.5 million annually in salary and benefits -- an average of $360,000 a week. It also contracts out $7 million in additional services annually, sparking an estimated additional 100 Maine jobs.
Proffitt also said about 50 patients held jobs last year, and then bought goods and services in the community.

"It's a clean industry for a community to embrace," he said.
Proffitt became superintendent at the Augusta facility the year it opened, in 2004.
Before that, he worked in mental health in several different cities around the country.
He had high praise Wednesday for how people with mental illness are looked after in Augusta.

He described a recent lunch with his wife at a local restaurant, where they saw a woman in apparent distress. His wife told the waitress she wanted to pay for a meal for the woman.

The waitress said not to worry about it, as the management of the restaurant paid for her meal, and others in the community looked after the woman, too.

"I've never been in a community that celebrates the diversity of its people, that showed the caring and tolerance that I have seen here in Augusta," Proffitt said. "That's what I love about Augusta. We respect the humanity of each other. We look out for one another."