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In a series of special reports and personal profiles, VPR News explores mental health issues in Vermont.Reports: The Acute Care System; Community Mental Health; Corrections; Involuntary MedicationProfiles: Vermont Mother; Paige Corologos; Anne Donahue; Marla SimpsonThis project was made possible by the VPR Journalism Fund. Learn more about the series State Of Mind.

State Of Mind Profile: Marla Simpson

VPR's series of special reports on mental health care in Vermont, "State of Mind," includes personal stories of Vermonters who have lived with mental health struggles.

One of the hot-button issues in Vermont’s mental health system right now is the question of how quickly doctors should be able to intervene when a patient in a psychiatric hospital is refusing medication. The debate is likely to heat up in the state legislature this winter. For people who struggle with severe mental illness, this is not a political debate. It’s a very personal experience.

Marla Simpson says she’s a proud Vermonter, born and raised, but she hasn’t always had a positive experience in the state’s psychiatric hospitals.

Here is her story:

My history with mental health goes back to 1997, when I was diagnosed with bipolar 1 disorder. And since then I've had a long and somewhat harrowing journey with mental health. Also some very good experiences with some very fine professionals and peers.

I've had many experiences with forced drugging, seclusion, and restraint. The worst one being at the former Vermont State Hospital, which I considered to be a prison, not a hospital. And I was literally one of the last patients evacuated from VSH after Hurricane Irene. The hurricane, for me, was an act of God. I was evacuated to the Brattleboro Retreat and was continued to be held there.

At the time, leading up to the hospitalizations, I was smoking a lot of pot, which I no longer do. And I was in an altered state of mind. But I had actually walked down the street naked in the middle of the night. So my crime--which was not really a crime--but my crime was public nudity. And it was right before, as I said, Hurricane Irene hit and I felt like some kind of apocalypse was coming. And that was mid-July of 2011. And so I was off to meet the mothership. And that's why I was walking down the street with my cat. And then it happened again in the early morning of 2012. So they considered me a threat to myself because of that. Had I had on a little string bikini or something it never would have happened.

Most times, with issues like that, what's happened to me is that the police get involved, you're handcuffed, you're put in a police car, you're brought to a police station. And then they transport you in a police car, in handcuffs and shackles, to a hospital.

Once somebody has been labeled involuntary, you're at the mercy of the system. It feels like being in prison.

Really every part of my life has been affected. My romantic relationships, my friendships. My marriage, years ago, fell apart because of it. I was diagnosed four months after I got married. I'm sure, in the past, different jobs have been affected. I've experienced depression, anxiety, psychoses.

My very career path has been affected. I chose to get a masters degree in counseling because of my own experiences, whereas before, I'd been a theater major and watched my friends go on to film and television.

Every facet of my life has been affected by it.

You know, I'm a survivor. If anything, I'm a survivor. I'm a really really strong person. I see myself as in remission. I am hoping, knock on wood, that these past hospitalizations are a thing of the past that can make my present and future stronger.

Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
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