The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce that Dr. Terry Brelje, a renowned clinical psychologist who worked for more than thirty years to modernize and humanize treatment for mental health patients in Randolph County, will be inducted into the 2021 class of honorees.
Terry Brelje was born in Chester in May 1938. His parents, Gerhard Brelje and Virginia Young Brelje, raised Terry and his sister, Linda, in Chester, where Gerhard worked at Paulter’s IGA. Both of the Brelje kids attended school in Chester, where Terry was an active and involved student. After graduating from Chester High School in the spring of 1956, Terry enrolled at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. As a child, he had dreamed of a career as a diplomat with the state department, and he began working toward a political science degree with that goal in mind. After taking a course in psychology, however, his plans for the future shifted. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the university in 1960, and then returned to complete his master’s degree and his doctorate in clinical psychology, graduating in 1967.
Shortly after Terry finished his degree and married a fellow academic, Martha Brose, he was offered the job of chief psychologist at Chester Mental Health Center, then called the Illinois Security Hospital. The facility, located beside the Menard Correctional Center, is the only maximum-security forensic psychiatric hospital in the state of Illinois. The institution, which was founded in 1891, houses a subset of patients linked to the state corrections system, including those who have been found not guilty by reason of insanity or have been found unfit to stand trial, as well as those requiring more secure housing. Terry was quickly promoted to program director, and soon he became the superintendent of the entire facility.
In the 1960s, when Terry arrived at the hospital, the institution was in dire need of both physical upgrades and changes to its care procedures for patients. The hospital had been run for years by political appointees rather than medical professionals, and the buildings were dated and crumbling. The John Howard Association, a correctional oversight organization based out of Chicago, had written a troubling report on conditions at the hospital. Terry was tasked with bringing both the buildings and the systems of treatment for the patients up to date. Treatment programs deemed archaic and even abusive were abandoned, and rooms were repurposed for more modern therapeutic sessions. More than 20 new staff members were hired, including additional trained counselors and psychologists. Terry told the press that all of the changes were aimed toward achieving one major goal: “We want to make it less repressive, more humane.”
The crowning achievement of Terry’s tenure as head of Chester Mental Health was the construction of a brand-new facility, which replaced dungeon-like buildings that had been used for more than 80 years. The new center, which cost $8 million to complete, featured more private accommodations for patients and upgraded security features to replace outdated, repressive iron bars. More space for educational activities was also included in the new facility, as were better and updated spaces for medical services. Notably, the new facility, located on the humid banks of the Mississippi River, would finally be fully air conditioned. The cleaner, more modern buildings were anticipated to lead to better rates of employee retention as well. Overall, Terry explained, the new complex was “designed with therapy in mind, rather than punishment.” The new facility was officially opened in April 1976.
Terry remained at the helm of the Chester Mental Health Center until 1983. That December, he was appointed Associate Director for Policy and Special Programs for the Illinois Department of Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities. He moved with his wife and sons to Springfield, where he also served on the board of directors of the Gateway Foundation and the Hope School. By the 1980s, he had become a nationally recognized expert in the field of forensic psychiatry, with several books and articles to his name. He had undertaken consulting work for the US Department of Justice and served on a mental health task force during the Reagan administration. In 1988, he was appointed Deputy Director of the Illinois Department of Mental Health.
After his retirement in the early 1990s, Terry continued to maintain a private practice in Springfield. He died at the age of 67 in November 2005. He had devoted his life to improving forensic psychiatric care and extending more modern mental health services and treatment for patients in the state of Illinois. With a focus on therapy and humanity, he worked to create a healthier, kinder environment for patients in state care, providing them with enhanced opportunities to rehabilitate and grow.