Amherst Magazine


Charlotte MacLennan '04

Grappling With Demons


Music, Stigma and Carrying a Voice

By Robert Simpson ’69, chief operating officer of Sisters of Providence Health System Behavioral HealthCare

When does the mind truly become conscious about what it is we really are here on this earth to do? I remember as a student thinking with envy that you, my colleagues, had it all figured out upon graduation: off to law school, medical school and business school to become lawyers, doctors or corporate executives. I stayed on to become a Green Dean because I felt I was still too green to be sure of my previous choice to major in Russian. Where would that take me, I wondered: to the CIA, to teach or maybe to an ambassadorship, as my mother imagined?

Through a confluence of events, I ended up working in a psychiatric hospital, thinking that I was doing it to make money to go to graduate school at Johns Hopkins, where I had been accepted into the School of International Relations. But I was hooked: I enjoy taking care of people who have no voice, like the mentally ill in our society. Of all the illnesses that we treat in medicine, mental illness is the most stigmatized.

Over the past 32 years I have progressively discovered my own voice as an advocate for the mentally ill. It has also become clearer to me why my voice has grown. It seems to me that in our mid-50s we come clear about who it is we should be or have become. We become more truly conscious of the internal forces that have guided us; we are in sync with ourselves. We fit into our selves; the ambivalence dissolves. We have arrived.

My arrival happened recently, but it had its impetus in my youth. As a young child, I would spend time with my brother each afternoon until dinnertime at the home of my father’s Irish aunts. Aunts Ally, Polly, Ruth and Hazel had all married late in life to wealthy men who soon died and left them the means to care for each other quite well. They doted on us. Just across the street was a Catholic convent, and the sisters would play baseball with my aunts and my brother and me—can you imagine the scene?

My favorite aunt taught in the town’s one-room schoolhouse, played the organ at church and taught me to play the piano, beginning when I was 5 years old. She was a remarkable woman: pretty, red-haired, proud, kind and generous. To me, she was the most special person in the world.

When I was 7 she was hospitalized in a mental hospital for depression. I was distraught—no one would talk about it. She herself was acutely embarrassed by her illness, though she shouldn’t have been. I refused to go to school until I could see her. I remember being confused by her behavior; it did not seem like her to me, and no one could or would explain it to me. I just wanted her back, to go on as we had been living: crackers-and-cream-cheese snacks after school, baseball with the nuns and piano lessons.

Three years ago, that memory was the key to my awakening. I had been working at Baystate Health System as the executive in charge of mental health and cancer services, and one day I received an invitation to lunch from Sister Ruth of the Sisters of Providence Health System. What do you say when a nun asks you to lunch? I said, “Where and what time?” At lunch she said, “I’ve been watching you; you’re an advocate for the mentally ill. Why? What is your story?” I found myself telling her about my aunt and the baseball games, and suddenly it all became clear—I moved over to Providence Behavioral Health Hospital, where I am the chief operating officer.

I took the position not necessarily because I am a Catholic, but because it fit my early history, my memories of my aunt and my commitment to her. When she died, she gave me a doll with a note pinned to it: “Robbie, now that you are in the business, please find a special place for people like me.” She also gave me her grand piano, which I have moved with me from Boston to Utah to Amherst, and now to Providence. My aunt’s piano and I have recently been on a television news special about mental illness. When I welcome new employees to the hospital I end the welcome by telling them about my aunt, about how they can make a difference in the lives of patients by helping them find their voice. Then I play the piano—a jazzy piece about the pace of work and Clair de Lune, about the need to work together as the players in an orchestra must do.

In Massachusetts, only 20 percent of the children needing treatment for mental illness receive it. It’s not right. My aunt would be ashamed, but not necessarily surprised.

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