Not long ago the notion of going to Waterbury was shorthand for a journey into the stigmatizing world of mental illness. For decades, the small burg near the posh ski town of Stowe was identified with the sprawling campus of the Vermont State Hospital. At one point, the facility housed about 1,400 psychiatric patients.
In the 1970s, as the deinstitutionalization movement took hold and community mental health services became the mainstay of psychiatric treatment in Vermont, the hospital discharged hundreds of patients. By the early 1980s, about 200 patients resided at the facility.
Eventually, the Victorian era brick buildings with slate roofed-turrets and stately facades were transformed from psychiatric units into office spaces for departments and agencies of state government.
The facility is so enormous it can accommodate the two largest agencies of state government – the Agency of Natural Resources and the Agency of Human Services – plus the Department of Public Safety.
While Waterbury is now most often associated with the Ben and Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream plant on the outskirts of town and the Waterbury State Office Complex, the Vermont State Hospital has never disappeared from the premises. Today, the "Brooks" building houses up to 54 patients at a time.
The facility is now located in the back of the complex, mostly hidden from view. The severely mentally ill patients are kept cloistered in what the outgoing executive director of the Vermont State Hospital calls a "prison-like" environment. The unit is small and staff and patients function in very close quarters. Patients are kept in their rooms most of the time. There is no gymnasium, no garden area, no vocational shops, and very little space for family visitation. When a patient screams or yells or slams a door the sound reverberates through the wards unabated.
Terry Rowe, who has served as the executive director of the hospital since 2004, is the first to say the facility is "as safe as it can be, but it doesn’t have the physical environment you would really want it to have for a relative or a loved one."
Rowe is leaving what she describes as an extremely stressful 24/7 position to take a 9 to 5 desk job in the Agency of Human Services next month (she’ll be managing the child abuse registry).