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My Thoughts about Torrey’s “American Psychosis”.

This weekend I began and finished E. Fuller Torrey’s American Psychosis: How the Federal Government Destroyed the Mental Illness Treatment System. (That’s not an inflammatory title. At all.) Though I have read a few of his articles, I have avoided reading his books. Part of this was due to all the other books I have wanted to read; most of this was due to my discomfort with how he frequently presents people with severe mental illnesses as dangerous and violent. Torrey is probably best known for his arguments to change the law so that it is easier to hospitalize people against their wills.

You can see how that is controversial. What his Treatment Advocacy Center says is advocacy, others say is coercion and social control.

In this book Torrey presents a history of the Community Mental Health Act of 1963 and presents compelling arguments that it was flawed since its inception. He also argues that patients with severe psychiatric conditions now continue to suffer consequences from the Act.

Although I do not agree with all of Torrey’s opinions, I do agree that the current “mental illness treatment system” doesn’t work. People—social workers, patients, nurses, therapists, case managers, psychiatrists—are all doing the best that they can, but the system could improve. A lot.

Fuller offers ten solutions to make the “mental illness treatment system” better:

Public psychiatric hospitals cannot be completely abolished. A minimum number of beds, perhaps 40 to 60 per 100,000 population, will be needed. This is approximately four times more beds than we have available today.

Torrey argues that a small percentage of people, due to their chronic and severe psychiatric symptoms, will need to stay in hospitals for a long period of time.

I am torn about that: On the one hand, I have my own anecdotal experiences working with patients who, with the “right”[1. “Right” is a relative term and depends on the individual. I also recognize that my anecdotal experiences are just that: anecdotal.] support, were able to stay out of hospitals despite their significant symptoms. The lack of public hospital beds forced all of us—the patients and the supporting team—to figure out creative ways to keep patients out of the hospital.

On the other hand, people get caught up in where patients with severe psychiatric symptoms are. There is an underlying assumption that being in a [state] hospital is bad, an evil to be avoided at all costs. Yes, there were and are hospitals that do not provide good care. That does not mean all psychiatric hospitals are terrible. Some people who are in jails, on the streets, or sitting in emergency rooms night after night are those who could benefit from treatment in public psychiatric hospitals.

As someone who has worked in all three systems—jails, homeless services, and emergency/crisis centers—I must say that the stability and structure of a [state] hospital is much more therapeutic and safe than the chaos often inherent in the other sites.

Lack of awareness of illness (anosognosia) must be considered when planning any mental illness treatment system and provision made for the implementation of some form of involuntary treatment, such as assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) or conditional release for approximately 1% of all individuals with severe mental illnesses who are living in our communities.

Prior to reading this book I had never considered the comparison of anosognosia in people with dementia with the anosognosia of people with psychiatric conditions. People readily commit people with dementia (who can be as violent, though perhaps without the same sense of purpose, as people with psychosis) into homes and institutions without discussions about their civil liberties. Why don’t we do the same with people who are psychotic?

The conditions are different, of course.[2. We will put aside commentary about Kraeplin’s dementia praecox for now.] Dementia is a global phenomenon; it affects nearly all spheres of a person’s existence. Psychosis is often sphere specific. There are people with psychotic conditions who pay their rent, buy food, take showers, and spend time with friends and family… and earnestly argue that cameras are monitoring them, that chips were implanted into their bodies in the past, and the FBI is trying to kill them.

The system often tries to avoid admitting people with dementia into hospitals for psychiatric reasons. Why? Because, at this time, we have no interventions or expectations that people with dementia will get better.

We admit people with psychiatric conditions into hospitals because we expect people will recover.

Community treatment of mentally ill individuals will only be successful if carried out by community mental illness centers, not in community mental health centers. The change of one word is crucial to the success of any such program. Mental illness centers may be freestanding or integrated as part of medical centers.

The italics are Torrey’s, not mine. You now see why Torrey calls it the “mental illness treatment system”.

While I agree that words matter, I don’t think using the word “illness” will endear the system to either patients or those who work in them. There is already stigma attached to psychiatric conditions. Who wants to walk into a “mental illness treatment facility”? Furthermore, when we do understand etiologies of psychiatric conditions, why not invest energy in prevention?

There are dialysis centers, children’s hospitals, and heart and vascular institutes. If a name change is indicated, why not “mental treatment system” or “mental institute”? Some people will maintain their mental health; others will receive active treatment for mental illness.

Continuity of care, especially continuity of caregivers, is essential for good psychiatric care of individuals with serious mental illnesses.

This is true for anyone for any condition (cardiologists and people who have had heart attacks; students and teachers; parents and children; etc.).

We must create a system where staff retention is a priority. So many people leave community psychiatry because they burn out and don’t receive support. Patients should leave us because they recover and become independent; we should not leave them.

In addition to medication, individuals with serious mental illnesses need access to decent housing, vocational opportunities, and opportunities for socialization. The clubhouse is the best model for meeting these needs.

Note that Torrey argues that medication is the anchor for psychiatric treatment. Others disagree. I think it depends on the person and situation.

Clubhouses don’t receive the attention they should. They’re inspiring. Fountain House in New York City is the original clubhouse. One of the primary arguments against clubhouses is that they do not foster integration with people who don’t have psychiatric conditions. We all, however, are free to choose who we want to spend our time with and people with psychiatric conditions are no different. If they want to spend time at the clubhouse, they can. If they don’t, they won’t.

To protect vulnerable mentally ill individuals living in nursing homes and board-and-care homes, there must be periodic, unannounced inspections by an independent state agency. Evaluations and corrective actions must be made public.

I agree.

My work has not brought me into nursing homes and adult family homes (what “board-and-care homes” are called here in Washington State). Torrey presents heartbreaking anecdotes and data about the treatment people did not receive and the abuses they experienced in these facilities. (They mirror reports that came out of some state hospitals in the past.)

Unfortunately, people with psychiatric conditions generally don’t pull at heartstrings the way kids with cancer do. I worry that, given the relative apathy to the number and conditions of people who are homeless, the public may not have any reaction upon learning what happens in adult family homes.

For-profit funding of public mental illness services has been tried and does not work.

I agree.

Torrey and I share the same perspective: If the organization’s goal is to make a profit, money will always trump patient care. People with significant psychiatric conditions will somehow exit the system[3. And by “exit the system”, I mean patients are actively pushed out, not let back in, or made to jump through hoops that they cannot get through in order to receive services.] because they often require resources—time, money, energy—that are antithetical to saving or earning money.

This is why I am biased against for-profit correctional systems.

In selected cases, psychiatric information on mentally ill individuals who have a history of dangerousness should be made available to law enforcement personnel, because they are now the frontline mental health workers.

This point is tied to Torrey’s arguments that people with severe mental illnesses are dangerous. To Torrey’s credit, he does state that people with psychiatric conditions are vulnerable and are often victims of violence, but he spends a lot more time discussing the murders that people with psychiatric conditions have committed.

There are obvious privacy concerns about this. Are police officers familiar with HIPAA? How else might law enforcement officers use this information?

The single biggest problem with the present anarchic system of mental illness services is that nobody is accountable. It will be necessary to assign responsibility to a single level of government, and to then hold such individuals accountable, before any improvement can occur.

Torrey makes it clear that the federal government should not be the responsible party. I agree with that.

While I understand the Torrey’s sentiment, it is much easier said than done. The “mental illness treatment system” now spans multiple domains: the legal system, emergency departments, medical clinics, homeless shelters, law enforcement, mental “health” centers, hospitals, etc. Working with all these groups and aligning efforts to a set of goals will require significant culture change.

If you made it this far in the post, let me conclude by saying that, even if you don’t agree with Torrey’s thesis, this book is still an engaging and thoughtful read. I will confess that I began to feel hopeless and overwhelmed as he laid out all the failures of the system. However, he did finish the book with compelling solutions and highlighted that we can’t give up. This is not easy work, but it is meaningful work, and there is value both to individuals and the community if we take care of the vulnerable people in our lives.