by John D. Begin
Some people find their life's passion on a college campus, in their first job or later in adulthood.
Emilie van Eeghen found hers as a child volunteering at Fountain House in New York City, the first clubhouse dedicated to the recovery of men and women with mental illness.
That's where her stepfather worked and the passion he and others exhibited as they provided services to individuals in need deeply inspired her. Eventually it led to a 32-year career working with the same population as well as those struggling with substance use disorder.
"I knew then that whatever I did in my life, I wanted to care as deeply about it as they did," she said.
Now nearly 67, van Eeghen's work at MaineGeneral Health, which began fresh out of graduate school, will end with her retirement later this month.
MaineGeneral's chief behavioral health officer said while she looks forward to spending more time with her husband Richard Tory and her family, she will greatly miss the people with whom she’s worked closely and those she and her peers have helped.
The latter group, in particular, is what drew her to the field in 1987 and kept her there as regional services for those with mental illness and substance use disorder evolved from an initial scattering of services into a full continuum of care.
The keys to this growth, van Eeghen said, have been the interpersonal relationships and agency partnerships that served as a foundation on which to build.
"Behavioral health care services have always been insufficient to meet the need, so you have to be creative. But you also have think of yourself as a partner in providing comprehensive services along with other agencies," she said. "Collectively we strove to develop a system of care that shared resources and tried to meet the needs of individuals and family members."
"What we have now is a much more comprehensive array of services, to go along with a much better understanding of mental illness, mental health issues and substance use disorder," she said.
"Behavioral health is about helping people build relationships. Having the opportunity to build relationships in pursuit of meeting people's needs has been the best part of my career," she added. "It's been amazing and what I'll miss most."
When someone has dedicated herself to a particular field for many years, it's logical to ask what she would like to be remembered for. Van Eeghen hopes her legacy will be characterized by a consistent focus on her department's mission and her collaborative efforts with others to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness and substance use disorder.
"Over the years, we’ve had to make some hard decisions about the way we provide services. There are programs that are critical to the community that at times were financially difficult to operate," she said. "I'm proud of being able to keep my eye on the mission and guide us through those times so we could continue to provide them."
"I also hope I've helped diminish the stigma – both at at MaineGeneral and at the statewide level," she added, "because it has a devastating effect on people and their families."
In addition to her family, support for the work van Eeghen does has come from the success stories of those whose lives have been changed because of the services they’ve received.
"I've met people who first connected with us through our needle exchange program. They weren't interested in treatment then; they just needed clean needles. And now some of them are professionals working in the substance use disorder field," she said. "I also know people with mental illness who we served who struggle every day and yet go to work and figure out how to develop relationships with people. You have to admire people for their resiliency in being able to continue on despite these challenges."