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God’s Work versus Meaningful Work versus Value.

Every now and then, when some people learn what kind of work I do, they say, “You’re doing God’s work. Thank you.”

They mean well, so I accept the compliment, though I also tack on, “I also like what I do. It’s meaningful work for me.”

So many of the people I see, whether in my current job or in my past jobs working in other underserved communities, have a lot going on that psychiatry and medicine cannot formally address. One example is housing. It is often an effective intervention for the distress of people who don’t have a place to live, though housing is not something physicians can prescribe. However, there are individuals who are eligible for housing, but do not want to move into housing for reasons that do not make sense to most people. For example, in New York I worked with a man who would spend his days sitting in front of the building where he once worked before he became ill. He talked to himself and burned through multiple packs of cigarettes. He did not recognize how soiled his clothes and skin became with time. At night he disappeared into the subway tunnels and rode the trains. He did not want to move into an apartment until he was able to get his job back, even though he hadn’t worked there in over ten years. With time (nearly two years!) and unrelenting attention, our team was able to persuade him to try living indoors. He eventually accepted the key and moved in.

There are other active conditions that I do not have the skills to treat: Sometimes it’s institutional racism; sometimes it’s multiple generations of poverty. Both prevent people from accessing education, housing, and other resources. Do some of these individuals end up taking psychotropic medications due to the consequences of these systemic conditions? Yes. Do I think they’re always indicated? No.

Most of my jobs have been unconventional: I worked on an Assertive Community Treatment team that often provided intensive psychiatric services in people’s homes. I worked with a homeless outreach team and did most of my clinical work in alleys, under bridges, and in public parks. I worked in a geriatric adult home and saw people either in my office, which was literally the storage room for the recreational therapist’s stuff, or in their apartments if they were uncomfortable seeing me in the storage room. I was recruited to create and lead the programming for a new crisis center whose goal was to divert people from jails and emergency departments.

And now I work in a jail.

As time progresses, it has become clear to me that I have not had the typical career for a psychiatrist. I like that. However, I often also feel out of touch with my colleagues. I believe that they are all trying their best, but they don’t have the time to see how systems end up failing the most vulnerable and ill in our communities. They work in the ivory towers of academia and don’t seem to realize the dearth of resources—financial, administrative, academic—in the community. They work in private practice and don’t seem to realize how ill some people are and how we need their expertise. They work in psychiatric hospitals and seem to believe that some of these individuals will never get better when, in fact, they do.

Because much of my work has been outside of the traditional system, I consider myself fortunate that I have been able to escape the box of simply prescribing medications. Many of the individuals under my care do not want to take medications. Their desire to not take medications, though, doesn’t stop us from working with them. We meet them where they are at and remember that they are, first, people. As we are in the profession of helping people shift their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, we believe that there will come a time—maybe soon, but maybe not for weeks, months, or years—that something will change. Just getting someone to talk to us becomes the essential task. This is true whether someone is in a jail cell, living in a cardboard box under a bridge, or residing in a studio apartment.

Should systems pay psychiatrists to do this work? Maybe it’s not “cost effective” because of its “low return on investment”. After all, this task of “building rapport” means psychiatrists aren’t working “at the top of their licenses”. If a psychiatrist is able to get people to talk to her and help them shift their behaviors, whether or not that involves medications, does that have value?

Does the psychiatrist’s efforts have value if it helps the “system” save money?

Is there value if it reduces the suffering of these individuals who have had to deal with police officers, jails, and living on the streets due to a psychiatric condition?

Perhaps my idealism blinds me. One of my early mentors in New York City often said, “I want the guy who lives under the Manhattan Bridge to have a psychiatrist who is as good as, if not better than, the psychiatrist who has a private practice on Fifth Avenue.” I couldn’t agree more.

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The Value of Psychiatrists.

While slogging through a crappy first draft of a document about the value of psychiatrists in mental health and substance use disorder services, I did a literature search for supporting evidence.

I found nothing.[1. Physicians, as a population, don’t advocate for ourselves as much as we should because we’re “too busy taking care of patients”. This is true. However, our busy-ness creates a vacuum where non-physicians step in and make decisions for us. We then express resentment that we have to follow the edicts of people who have never done the work. If we did a better job of regulating and advocating for ourselves, we might not be in this position.]

“So how exactly are we helpful?” I mused out loud. Maybe we aren’t: There are groups out there who do not believe that psychiatrists can or do help anyone.

I am an N of 1. Therefore, this post is an anecdote, not evidence. Nonetheless:

Psychiatrists provide psychiatric services. These are increasingly limited to only medication management, which is unfortunate. Psychiatrists need psychotherapy skills—or, abilities to connect with people to build trusting and respectful relationships—to do effective medication management. I can write dozens of prescriptions and change doses as much as I want, but if the person I am working with doesn’t trust me, none of my tinkering matters.

When people think about medication management, they often think only of adding medications or exchanging one for another. Medication management also includes helping people come off of medications. This “deprescribing” also requires the use of psychotherapy skills: Some people feel great discomfort when coming off of medications. Sometimes the reasons are physiological; sometimes they’re psychological. Psychotherapeutic interventions and education are necessary in helping people cope with and overcome these discomforts.[2. For any psychiatrists out there: You could build an entire practice around “deprescribing”. This is one of the most common clinical requests I receive through my blog. I don’t have a private practice, so I turn all these people away. To be clear, deprescribing isn’t limited to private practices; I deprescribe in my clinical work in the jail.]

Psychiatrists often have the most clinical expertise. Most have had exposure to the spectrum of psychiatric services (in residency training) and thus have perspective about how systems work (or fail). Thus, psychiatrists can provide clinical consultation about specific patients and program design, implementation, and improvement. One example is the use of medication assisted treatment for substance use disorders. Certain programs or agencies may believe in abstinence only and will view medications as another misused substance. That perspective is not invalid, though giving people more options may help someone reach the goal of abstinence.

Psychiatrists can provide education to other staff to improve their clinical skills, which can elevate the quality of care clients receive across the agency. Psychiatrists can also provide leadership and influence the direction and ethos of a clinical service. For example, you can imagine how a psychiatrist might influence a service if he believes that the only way to help patients is to convince them to take psychotropic medications forever. A different psychiatrist who believes that employment or housing may be more effective than medication for some patients would provide a different influence.

Psychiatrists can triage patients who are in crisis. A roving psychiatrist on the streets or visiting people in their homes often can’t do things like draw blood, but they can assess people and circumstances to determine whether a visit to the emergency department can be avoided. Psychiatrists can also provide strong advocacy: Psychiatrists can work with law enforcement so that people who would be better served in a hospital actually go to the hospital, and not to jail. Similarly, if someone who has a significant psychiatric condition requires medical attention, psychiatrists can talk with hospital staff to advocate for this. Too many of us have stories about our patients who needed medical interventions, but others thought their symptoms were entirely due to psychiatric conditions.

Psychiatrists go through medical training and often have ongoing contact with other medical specialties. They are thus familiar with the practical realities of communication about and coordination of care for patients across systems. While overcoming the financial and policy hurdles to integrate care are important, the reason why integration matters (or, at least why I hope it matters) is to improve the experience for the patient. Administrators should consider the interaction and experience between the physician and the patient as paramount. The system should not sacrifice that relationship to make administration easier.

This is the message that all physicians, psychiatrists or otherwise, need to communicate to administrators. We don’t do ourselves any favors by assuming that people know what value we bring to patients or to the system. Sometimes it also helps to remind ourselves, too, so we can improve our work for the people we serve.

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Jail Costs versus Hospital Costs.

We received the State of Washington Voters’ Pamphlet in the mail today. One of the initiatives, I-1401, concerns “trafficking of animal species threatened with extinction”.

Have no fear: This post is unrelated to trafficking of animal species threatened with extinction.

The “Fiscal Impact Statement” includes a statement about jail costs (highlighted for emphasis):


“No wonder why people with psychiatric conditions end up in jail!” I exclaimed. “It’s so much cheaper for them to be there!”

Information about hospital costs are public. This page shares inpatient hospital rates for people who have Medicaid insurance in August 2015. All the hospitals in Washington State are listed in the leftmost column. One of the columns has the title “Psych_ Per Diem”. That column tells you how much money each hospital is paid if a patient with Medicaid is admitted there for psychiatric reasons. First, you will note that hospitals are paid[1. Forgive the passive voice when I write “hospitals are paid”. In Washington, hospitals send bills for Medicaid patients to the state. The state pays the hospital bill. The state then turns around and sends a bill to the region that the patient “belongs” to. The region then pays that state bill. The region gets money to pay that bill from a mix of federal and state Medicaid dollars, which ultimately come from taxpayers. Confusing, right?] different amounts. That alone is fascinating—what accounts for that? who decides how much money each hospital will receive?

More to the point, it costs anywhere between $711.55 and $1788.93 per day for an adult with Medicaid to stay in a hospital. The average cost of incarceration in Washington is $88 per day. Thus, it is at least eight times cheaper for someone to stay in jail than in a psychiatric hospital.[2. This page shares inpatient hospital rates for people who don’t have any insurance. Note that the rates are lower compared to the Medicaid rates. They are nonetheless still much higher than the daily jail rate.]

On the one hand, the differences in cost aren’t surprising: Hospitals often have more staff, equipment, and services. On the other hand, we also know that jails are often the largest psychiatric hospitals in any given region. For example, in Seattle, the jail has about 120 psychiatric beds. The largest psychiatric hospital in Seattle has about 61 beds.

I really want to believe that no one intentionally designed the system this way. Surely no person or system could be so heinous and miserly to funnel people into jail instead of a psychiatric hospital. Right?


But, then the disgust kicks in: What if the costs were reversed? What if it cost $88 a day for someone to stay in a psychiatric hospital and $712 a day for someone to stay in a jail? Would we see as many people with psychiatric conditions in jail? Of course not.[3. To be clear, we should also help people stay out of psychiatric hospitals, too. Inpatient services should be available if people need them, but let’s focus on prevention and help people stay in their communities. Being in a hospital generally sucks.]

It shouldn’t be all about money, but when the cost differences are that big, money has undue weight. If we actually want to help people with psychiatric conditions, we must pay for services. Otherwise, we will only see more and more of them in jail.

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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.

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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.