Amy O'Connor, executive editor of the newly launched Time Inc. Web site Health.com, admits she scoffed at the notion of a psychiatrist from Wisconsin being the key expert for her site's section on depression. In fact, she confessed her response was: "Oh please. Why would we want him?"
Most of Health.com's medical experts are from New York City, where Time is based. But for the sake of regional diversity, she decided to give Dr. Ken Robbins, a psychiatrist from Madison, a shot. Still, she worried: "He works with people like Jeffrey Dahmer; what would he have to say to our readers?"
Now O'Connor happily admits her skepticism was dead wrong.
"My boss and I went down to watch the taping of his video and we were blown away," O'Connor said. "He's the psychiatrist from Central Castinghe's such a natural. Halfway through the taping we were asking ourselves, 'Can he move here and be our staff psychiatrist?'"
Reading that praise is sure to make Robbins feel honored, and tremendously uncomfortable. He has managed to forge a career of accomplishing high-profile work while making sure the limelight is not on him.
Robbins, 56, is a past president of the Wisconsin Psychiatric Association. He was medical director at Mendota Mental Health Institute. He helps the Madison Police Department interview recruits and aided Barry Alvarez in creating a program to acclimate new UW football players to college. He is currently a consultant, as well as part-time medical director of the geriatric psychiatry unit at Stoughton Hospital.
Robbins is among the top forensic experts for his testimony in court cases involving insanity pleas or involuntary commitment and has testified in large class action lawsuits, and he has interviewed notorious criminals, including serial killer Dahmer.
But while Health.com discovered him through a friend-of-a-friend who heads its video department, Robbins keeps a low local profile these days.
"Away from the limelight is how he operates and prefers to operate," said former Dane County Executive Rick Phelps, one of Robbins' close friends. "Although he's very well known and well regarded in his own field."
"He's under the radar," agreed assistant district attorney Bob Kaiser, who has worked with Robbins on cases. "He has to be, in this line of work. He conveys a sense of authority, but it's not about him. It's about the facts of the case and how to best address them. That's not a little thing in our business, which is why we love him."
\ Less glamorous path
Unprompted, two of Robbins' professional contacts separately offer an identical take on Robbins' career: He's so good at what he does he could have Woody Allen on his couch and be "a psychiatrist to the stars."
But, note both O'Connor and Kaiser, he chose a less glamorous path.
"I have always liked working with patients that have more difficulties - the more severely ill," Robbins said. "It combines my backgrounds in internal medicine and psychiatry and it's challenging and therefore rewarding."
So the more unusual fit for Robbins is Health.com, which launched in May and is affiliated with "Health" magazine but has been redesigned to function independently with a consumer focus to challenge such sites as WebMD as the go-to place for medical consumers.
Video clips include experts and patients talking frankly about their experiences. One of Robbins' segments explains how to ask loved ones if they are thinking about suicide.
Given his father's low profile, it shocked Robbins' son Benjamin when he discovered this clip on YouTube, where it generated more than 20,000 hits. (Other topics he addresses in videos on the site include signs of bipolar disorder, mood stabilizers and alternative depression treatments such as St. John's Wort.) "I'm not so sure it's a good sign that a suicide video attracted so much attention," Robbins said. But Health.com editor O'Connor says his advice is precisely what people need.
Shortly after the site's launch, they tested for user feedback. "One woman was so moved by Dr. Ken, she just started crying," O'Connor reported. "When you see him on video, you feel like you're sitting in private with him answering a question you might be afraid to ask. He's reassuring, tremendously comforting, but not arrogant. He's the breakout star of Health.com."
\ Understanding both
Reaching Web consumers has raised Robbins' profile, yet much of his professional life is spent in the deep end of psychiatrywhere it intersects with the legal system. This began when he accepted the job of medical director at Mendota Mental Health Institute.
"One of the first things I had to do was to read law books," Robbins said. "Mendota is really the place where the legal system and the mental health system come together and you have to understand both to know how Mendota should work."
Many residents at Mendota are there either because they've committed a crime but were found not guilty by reason of insanity, or because a mental illness makes them potentially dangerous. The expertise he developed led to judges and lawyers calling on him to testify in court cases and give advice that influences sentencing.
Such high-pressure testimony necessitates staying dispassionate and sticking to the facts as the other side attacks and tries to discredit you. It also requires sounding learned without coming across as a big shot using fancy words.
That's why Robbins succeeds, said former Dane County Circuit judge Mark Frankel, who heard Robbins testify in his courtroom. "I know it's an oxymoron, but he's a down-to-earth psychiatrist," Frankel said. "He's one of the most well-grounded people I know."
Robbins holds clinical faculty positions in the Department of Psychiatry at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health and the Medical College of Wisconsin, teaching residents about legal aspects of psychiatric work. He also draws on his background in the law when interviewing Madison police recruits.
"It's an in-depth interview where we try to understand somebody's values and how they deal with conflict," Robbins explained.
This interest in the law and psychiatry has also drawn Robbins into large class-action lawsuits over how to serve and treat mentally ill patients in the prison system. He was hired by Ed Garvey's law firm as part of its successful six-year lawsuit against placing mentally ill inmates in the state prison in Boscobel, known as Supermax.
"We knew his involvement in the mental health field and were looking for people who understand the impact of incarceration on the mentally ill," Garvey said. "We were also looking for someone we could trust."
This case, Robbins said, led to calls from 15 other states with similar situations: "A big question debated around the country now is 'What is the role of corrections system in dealing with mentally ill inmates?'"
Hearing Robbins' name mentioned in any legal casecriminal, civil or class-actionturns heads, said assistant DA Kaiser: "You know you are going to get a fair, non-biased assessment. He offers his judgment, which is some of the best judgment out there. This is one of a number of tasks Ken has taken on ... well, because he's Ken."
\ Post suits him
When Robbins visits Health.com's offices, he's surrounded by employees the age of his childrentwenty-somethings. But listening to Robbins interact with his clinical staff during a meeting at Stoughton Hospital, it becomes clear why he also chooses to also work with elderly patients.
The issues he grapples with in this geriatric psychiatry unit are tricky and require separating psychiatric and medical symptoms. Often, because dementia is involved and patients can't make their own decisions, legal work becomes necessary.
Not only does this post use his internal medicine and legal backgrounds, it fits his desire to perform tasks that may be unappealing to others. He likes working with Stoughton Hospital because it houses a Medicare psychiatric unit, meeting the needs of a typically under-served group.
Since leaving Mendota, most of Robbins' work is done as a consultant. This has allowed him to focus where he sees the greatest needs and challenges, choosing people and companies he respects and policy he believes in. That's what drew him to consult for two local insurance companies, Wisconsin Physicians Service and WEA Trust, because they provide parity for mental health coverage, which means it is covered at similar levels to other illnesses.
"It's been a frustrating fight in Wisconsin because we are one of the last few states that don't have some form of parity mandated," Robbins said. "I think there is a fear among insurance companies that talk therapy will break the bank. That's not true at WEA and WPSat those companies no one has ever said, 'You need to figure out how to save money.' They both have the philosophy that if the care is done well, not only do the insured get the right care, but it will save them money."
Asked to describe the common thread among his varied jobs, Robbins replied: "I want to feel like I'm accomplishing something and being challenged. I don't like doing the same thing every day. That's why I've changed the nature of my work several times."
\ Friends met over soccer
During his tenure as Dane County Executive, Phelps often consulted with Robbins as he focused on juvenile justice and its link to mental health.
Yet the two actually met years before on the soccer fields where their children played and became close friends who take evening walks together and meet every Tuesday for drinks after work with friends Hal Harlowe, Billy Feitlinger and Ben Sidran. It's a gathering they jokingly dub "the Bored Meeting" where they talk about anything from politics to sports to the world's future.
"Ken is a very warm friend, compassionate and likeable right away," Phelps said. "He also has a reputation for being the group smart aleckbut it's never mean."
Among their network of friends, Robbins also assumes an informal role.
"When people need perspective, he's there to talk," Phelps said. "And he's our adjunct doctor. Whenever one of our kids ended up at the emergency room, boom, he'd be there."
Robbins is frequently at community events and fundraisers, usually brought along, he said, by his wife, Louise Root-Robbins, who champions such causes as Planned Parenthood and the Wexford Ridge Neighborhood Center. She is the director of diversity for the UW-Madison School of Nursing.
The couple have two children: Shaina, 27, a chef who is interested in health education, and Benjamin, 22, a recent Dartmouth College graduate who worked at a school for AIDS orphans in Tanzania and plans to go to medical school.
Told about Health.com's desire to lure him to New York and asked if he'd leave Madison, Robbins recalls advice from a colleague who moved and told him, "You can't make old friends."
He then smiles and shakes his head: "I don't think sowe have good friends here."