August 21st, 2013

New commissioner puts focus on system transformation

Since 2011, after Tropical Storm Irene closed the Vermont State Hospital, the state’s mental health care system has undergone a massive re-structuring. The administration of Gov. Peter Shumlin, with input from mental health care professionals, advocates and consumers, took the natural disaster as an opportunity to re-make the entire system following a de-centralized, community-based model.

For Paul Dupre, recently named as commissioner for the Department of Mental Health, the changes are also providing opportunities he may not otherwise have had. Dupre, formerly the executive director of the Washington County Mental Health Services (WCMHS), had been a member of the transformational council helping to design the community-based system now being built in locations around the state.

“I feel excited that after all these years, and possibly in the last few years of my career, I will be able to see some of what I have worked on come to pass,” he says.

Dupre steps into the lead role to replace Mary Moulton, the acting commissioner who took over late last year when Patrick Flood unexpectedly left the post.

The new commissioner has a long history of working in the mental health system in Vermont. He had been with WCMHS since 1978 and was a key player in setting up one of the state’s first group homes as well as developing housing for patients ready to leave the  mental health care system.

“Paul has been an aggressive advocate for improving the lives of Vermonters who deal with mental health issues,” Gov. Shumlin said in a statement.

He has also had experience in politics, serving on the city council of Barre for 10 years and as mayor for four.

“A political background helps in this job because you have a number of constituents that you need to understand how to work with,” he says.

The new commissioner is, of course, focusing primarily on ensuring the new facilities scheduled to come on-line over the next nine months stay on track and that the state-wide system runs as it should.

“I think that Vermont has taken a very progressive approach in the treatment of  people with mental illness but it creates certain challenges,” he says. “Before, we had 54 beds in the state hospital and all those pieces were in one place but now it is dispersed throughout the state.”

Since it is an appointed position, Dupre’s time in the post may be limited if Gov. Shumlin is not re-elected in the 2014 cycle. Still, he hopes to use whatever time he has in the top post to ensure a smooth transition as well as to direct the agency’s focus towards childhood mental health.

“We have focused so much on adults with the flood and re-structuring and we need to make sure we are doing our best with the younger people,” he adds.

Dupre agreed to take on the role in part because, with the many changes and the possibly limited time frame for the position, he felt that he was in a unique situation to leave his former job because he had been planning to retire within a year or two.

“When this opportunity came up, I felt that it was important to have someone step in who already knew the system,” he says. “I thought this was probably a job right now in Vermont that would be hard to fill because it is a challenging job and people may not be in a position to leave the security of their current employment.”

“My motivation in taking this post is because I believe very strongly that we are heading in the right direction and, not that I won’t stay on as long as they’ll have me, but this seemed like a great way to end up my career within the next few years.”

By Catherine Robertson Souter

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