Education Funding Homelessness Observations Policy Systems

Asylums are not the Answer.

The New York Times recently featured an op-ed from a psychiatrist, Dr. Montross, who argues for the return of the asylum.

I understand her frustrations: I have worked with homeless individuals in both New York and Seattle who, if they were in psychiatric institutions, would not have had to worry as much about their safety, getting food, or sleeping at night. Many of the patients I now see in jail should undoubtedly be in a psychiatric institution (though not necessarily for a long period of time).

However, I disagree with her assertion that we should return to the era of the asylum.

President Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act into law in 1963. The goal of this legislation was to move people out of long-term psychiatric institutions, such as state hospitals, and help them integrate into the community by enrolling them in outpatient services. This is what “deinstitutionalization” refers to.

The Community Mental Health Act, however, only provided funds for the construction of the community mental health centers. The law made no provisions to fund the services that would occur in these buildings.

What we see now—the “transinstitutionalization” of people with severe psychiatric conditions into homelessness and jails—is a consequence of this lack of funding and support for patient care services.

Think of it this way: A city wants to improve its public transportation system. The city passes a law that provides funds to buy a lot of buses. However, the law provides no money to hire and retain bus drivers. There is also no money to hire and retain mechanics for bus maintenance.

The people of the city are frustrated: “Our public transportation system sucks! The city should build a subway system!”

The bus system never got a fair chance.

We also moved away from asylum care for good reasons: Conditions in psychiatric institutions were often terrible. It was not uncommon for state psychiatric hospitals to have insufficient staff for the number of patients in the institution. In Alabama in 1970, one psychiatric institution had one physician for every 350 patients, one nurse for every 250 patients and one psychiatrist for every 1,700 patients.

Dr. Montross herself notes (emphases mine):

But as a result, my patients with chronic psychotic illnesses cycle between emergency hospitalizations and inadequate outpatient care. They are treated by community mental health centers whose overburdened psychiatrists may see even the sickest patients for only 20 minutes every three months.[2. Unfortunately, 20-minute appointments every three months for the sickest patients is also a common occurrence here in Washington.]

If that is the quality and quantity of care “the sickest patients” in outpatient settings receive, then of course “many patients struggle with homelessness” and “many are incarcerated.”

Dr. Montross calls for “modern” asylums, though it is unclear to me what incentives government has at this time to build and support institutions that “would be nothing like the one in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest'”. Asylums from years past did not receive sufficient funding to provide adequate care. Current outpatient centers often do not receive enough funding to provide adequate care. (How much longer must we wait before this changes?)

To be clear, I do believe there is a role for asylums in patient care. There is a small segment of the population with severe symptoms who would benefit from care in an institution. I’m talking about people who keep trying to jump off of buildings because they believe they can fly. Or people who cannot stop smashing their heads against the wall because they are trying to dislodge the computer chip they believe is in their heads. Or the people who eat their own feces and literally cannot use words to explain why.[1. As I have noted before: If you do not believe that these scenarios actually happen, I encourage you to volunteer at your local emergency department.] These individuals can and do recover; they are not necessarily destined to spend the rest of their lives in an asylum.

We also now have interventions such as assertive community treatment, assisted outpatient treatment[3. Assisted outpatient treatment is controversial, though preliminary data support its use. You can read an admittedly biased summary about it here.], and supportive housing/housing first. There is evidence that these intensive outpatient services keep people in the community and out of psychiatric institutions. What would happen if government and communities supported these interventions?

Modern psychiatric services—in an asylum or elsewhere—will not be modern at all if there are not enough staff to provide care for patients. It also will not be modern if the staff do not receive ongoing training and supervision for the care they provide. It cannot be modern if administrators do not understand the work and are unwilling to provide financial, technical, and emotional support to the front-line staff.

We must get away from the idea that where people receive services is more important than the quality of those services.