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Local Filmmakers Tackle The Mental Health System In ‘Dorothea’s Tears’

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Vision Project
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There are about a half-dozen abandoned psychiatric hospitals throughout the state of Connecticut. They are the remnants of a mental health system that once provided care for thousands of people in the state and more throughout the country. This is the subject of a new documentary by the Vision Project. It’s called Dorothea’s Tears. The film looks specifically at the closure of Fairfield Hills Hospital in Newtown. 

Richard Falco leads the Vision Project. He worked with two graduate students from Sacred Heart University to produce the film. Geer Teng directed the film and Keith Maciog produced it. They recently sat down with All Things Considered Host Bill Buchner to discuss the project. Below is a transcript of their conversation.

Keith, you narrated the film and you talk about a personal curiosity about Fairfield Hills. How did that come about?

I moved to Newtown, Connecticut, about five years, it’s been five years ago. And the thing about Fairfield Hills, the complex, the way it stands now, is it’s open. So there’s walking trails, there’s sports fields, so people are allowed to actually walk around and become pretty close to the buildings there. So by myself experiencing with my family, we’d walk around the complex and we’d see these old buildings kind of falling apart and rotting. It piqued my interest, what’s going on here, what happened here? Why are these buildings empty? What led up to the closing? And that’s what I wanted to address with this film.

And Fairfield Hills offered vital services, not only treatment, but also a home to people struggling with mental illness. That changed in the 1960s and 70s when there was a frenzy of foreclosing these institutions. I grew up in New York. I remember in the 1970s, the television reporter Geraldo Rivera did that exposé--

Rick: Willowbrook

Yes, Willowbrook State School in New Jersey. Now, what happened when they closed Fairfield Hills?

Keith: Steadily over the years, especially was exacerbated by the Kennedy Administration, they went into a community-based system that really wasn’t equipped for handling the population of people being pushed into it. And over time, the system, the community-based system was defunded and basically left to its own devices in a lot of ways. So a lot of these patients would end up on the streets at times, some of them would end up in prison, or worse, someone would die in the streets. Looking back on it, you could say it was a big failure in a lot of ways, the deinstitutionalization movement.

And it’s falling on the shoulders of the police and the prison system.

Keith: Yes, absolutely.

Rick, what do you think?

I think, yeah, to look at it from what has happened socially in terms of the country and how they made decisions on political levels as to how they were gonna take care of this population. And the tragedy and travesty of the entire thing is the fact that there’s a group of people who have no power, no say. And therefore it’s easy to make cuts, it’s easy to disregard, it’s easy to be left out in the cold. The concept was to give them these community centers where they thought it would be better and healthier for them and the community. However, when they deinstitutionalized, they didn’t provide the funding or the homes for this transition to happen.

Now, you feature interviews with former employees of Fairfield Hills that share many positive stories about the hospital. But Fairfield Hills, like other facilities during that time also had reports of abuse, harsh conditions, and suicides. Keith, did you come across these stories in your research?

Yes, and one of the people we interviewed acknowledged that there were problems with the state-run mental hospitals. The problem is, weighing the positives and negatives, what we see later on was when people were pushed out into the community, just the lack of services for them in a lot of ways, was much worse.

The last seven minutes of the documentary goes into the 2012 Newtown school shooting which occurred just a few miles from Fairfield Hills, maybe not even a mile. You point to it as a symbol of what’s gone wrong with our mental health system. Rick, could you talk about that?

Well, what I think we have to look at is the situation of what do you do with people whose needs are being negated and eliminated? And what happens because they’re not getting the care or the medications that they need? I mean, even if we look at some of the things that were maybe wrong about these large institutions, they were in a safe place where they were getting their meds, getting food, had a clean place to sleep. OK? And it also kind of segregated them in a more positive way from the public so that these situations that become extremely violent are much rarer or as we look back historically, there’s very few compared to where we see things happening today. I mean, it’s a tragedy as we look at how many shootings happen in our country and how many times, unfortunately, we have to witness again and again a terrible situation like children are killed, or people are killed because someone wasn’t getting the care that they needed.

Rick, the Vision Project is an advocacy journalism organization, and it’s clear in your documentary that you believe the current mental health system has failed. So are you advocating any specific solutions to fix the system?

I’m not sure it’s our job to find solutions as much as to bring the issues to the public. You know, we as an organization have no power to legislate; we have no ability to make people do things. However, if we can bring those voices forward, hopefully it serves as the catalyst maybe for change, a catalyst that can create action. And that action can lead to positive results that hopefully will address this situation.

And a question for Geer, you have quite a bit of footage in here, historical footage, interviews. What went into your thought process, editing this feature?

Yeah, when I was editing the whole movie, I was thinking about homeless people who are suffering severely, mentally, on the street, and being locked in jails in the nation. And Sandy Hook, the tragedy. Everything is making me really sad, I want to tell people that this is a national tragedy, this is a sad story, and this is really happening.

Richard Falco from the Vision Project, and from Sacred Heart University, graduate students Geer Tang and Keith Maciog. Thank you for coming in today, and good luck with this project.

Thank you.