Sunday, December 8, 2013
AUGUSTA -- A disturbing memory has haunted Karen Evans since she was a patient at the Augusta Mental Health Institute in the early 1960s.
Peter Driscoll, head of a nonprofit that serves the mentally ill, has found a few AMHI patients’ markers in Cony Cemetery, like this one for Laura Hollis, who died in 1865.
John Ewing/Staff Photographer
An old postcard shows the former Maine Insane Hospital in Augusta.
HISTORY of AMHI
1830: Ten years after Maine becomes a state, Gov. Jonathan Hunton calls for care of "numerous cases of lunacy"; survey by Dr. Tobias Purinton of Danville finds 562 mentally ill people in Maine, or about one in every 300 residents.
1834: Legislature appropriates $20,000 to establish state's first insane hospital; Reuel Williams of Augusta, a future U.S. senator, and Benjamin Brown Jr. of Vassalboro each donate $10,000 to the effort; both have mentally ill family members.
1835: State buys 35-acre site for hospital on Kennebec River in Augusta, directly across from the State House; it's modeled after State Lunatic Hospital in Worcester, Mass., and built of Hallowell granite; famed Mainer Dorothea Dix, an early mental health advocate, consults on the project.
1840: Maine Insane Hospital opens in Augusta to serve 120 patients; they come from across Maine, brought by family members and overseers of poorhouses, where some were kept in chains or cages; symptoms include mania, melancholy, masturbation and "faked voices."
1850: Fire guts half of hospital, killing 27 patients and one staff member; new wings, buildings and parcels of land are added through the 1980s, growing the campus to more than 800 acres, including 600 acres of farmland that produced tons of food and employed hundreds of patients.
1901: Eastern Maine Insane Hospital -- today's Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center -- opens in Bangor, immediately taking 145 patients from Maine Insane Hospital; in 1913, both are renamed, becoming Augusta State Hospital and Bangor State Hospital.
1930s: Hydro and radiant-heat therapies are introduced, followed by electroconvulsive and insulin-shock treatments in the 1940s, Thorazine therapy in the 1950s and lithium therapy in the 1960s.
1950s: Patient population peaks at 1,840 and stays 30 percent beyond capacity despite construction of several new buildings; staff introduces group therapy; hospital opens first community mental health center in Lewiston.
1960s: Hospital begins treating substance abuse and addiction; patients become eligible for Medicaid and Social Security benefits.
1970s: Consent decree eliminates unpaid patient labor at what is now Augusta Mental Health Institute; adolescent unit opens; growing emphasis on "deinstitutionalization" and community mental health services; average daily population drops from 1,500 to 350.
1988: Five patients at AMHI die during summer heat wave; mental health advocates bring class-action lawsuit against hospital and state.
1990: Consent decree orders state to address crowding and care problems at AMHI and improve community mental health programs by 1995; lack of funding and controversy lead to continued delays and repeated contempt orders through 2001.
2000: Legislature appropriates $33 million to build new hospital; four years later, 92-bed Riverview Psychiatric Center opens on hospital grounds and AMHI closes; court lifts active supervision of Riverview in 2011.
MAKE A CONTRIBUTION
The AMHI Cemetery Project is raising money to design and erect a permanent memorial to the 11,647 people who died at the hospital during its 165-year history, many without recognition. To make a contribution, send a check made out to the project, care of Amistad, P.O. Box 992, Portland, ME 04104.
Evans was 17 when she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and hospitalized for about a year. During her stay, a girl she knew only as Margaret confided that she was contemplating suicide.
Evans warned hospital staff. The next day, she discovered Margaret in her room, her head forced between the bars on the window. The window was shattered. Blood was everywhere.
"They took her away and I never found out what happened to her," said Evans, now 65. "It happened more than once while I was there, but she affected me the most. It felt to me that people disappeared overnight. That life could be dismissed so easily."
Nearly 50 years later, the tragic memory of Margaret fuels Evans' desire to establish a permanent memorial to the 11,647 people who died at AMHI during its 165-year history. The hospital, which closed in 2004, kept no apparent records of where deceased patients were buried, other than a hand-scrawled map of a few graves in a nearby cemetery.
Evans and other participants in the AMHI Cemetery Project, which culled the names of the dead from dusty ledgers and boxes of files, believe that some of the lost souls of AMHI were buried in unmarked graves somewhere on the hospital's 800-acre campus on the Kennebec River.
There are more than 300,000 of these forgotten dead at active and shuttered state psychiatric hospitals across the country, reflecting a time not so long ago when people with mental illness were viewed as society's castoffs.
The AMHI Cemetery Project has launched a campaign to raise at least $50,000 to design and install a memorial on the AMHI campus. The group's effort is part of a national movement to restore dignity to those who died without recognition in the past and foster compassion for the one in five American adults who have some form of mental illness today.
In March, the memorial project received a $10,000 lead donation from the Elsie and William Viles Foundation, headed by 97-year-old philanthropist Elsie Viles of Augusta.
Viles said she was moved to make a contribution after learning about the disregard that was shown to fellow human beings just down the road from her home.
"It's one of those things that strikes you," Viles said recently. "It's so sad that it happened, even though it was a long time ago. I think it's wonderful that this group has organized an effort to remember people the way they should be remembered."
'PASSED AWAY IN THE NIGHT'
The AMHI Cemetery Project started 12 years ago, prompted by Evans and led by Amistad, an agency in Portland that serves people with mental illness.
Evans had attended a mental health conference in Texas, where she learned about the prevalence of unmarked graves at U.S. psychiatric hospitals and ongoing efforts to recognize the forgotten dead in other states.
When an initial search of AMHI's records found no burial record, the group got special permission from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to search hospital records dating back to 1840, when AMHI was founded as the Maine Insane Hospital. As the hospital campus expanded, buildings were added and common language evolved, the name was changed to Maine State Hospital and later, AMHI.
Researchers found 11,647 names of patients who died on the premises. In the early days, hospital staff would simply note in a daily journal that a certain patient had "passed away in the night." Of the estimated 45,000 people who were admitted to AMHI from 1840 to 2004, nearly one-quarter died at the hospital, according to an AMHI Cemetery Project report.
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click image to enlarge
Karen Evans, now a mental health advocate, is haunted by the memory of a girl who threatened suicide while Evans was a patient at AMHI and who vanished shortly thereafter. “Life could be dismissed so easily” at AMHI, Evans said.
Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer