The Bazelon Center for Mental Health law has launched a letter writing campaign in an attempt to get 60 Minutes to do another segment about mental illness to balance what it claims was the biased viewpoint presented in a segment called: “Untreated Mental Illness: An Imminent Danger?” That program aired September 29th, shortly after the Navy Yard shootings, and focused on schizophrenia and violence. Much of the broadcast was devoted to an interview between Correspondent Steve Kroft and Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, who founded the Treatment Advocacy Center. The show ended with Dr. Torrey saying:
We have a grand experiment: what happens when you don’t treat people. But then you’re going to have to accept 10 percent of homicides being killed by untreated, mentally ill people. You’re going to have to accept Tucson and Aurora. You’re going to have to accept Cho at Virginia Tech. These are the consequences, when we allow people who need to be treated to go untreated. And, if you are willing to do that, then that’s fine. But I’m not willing to do that.
In its letter of complaint, which was signed by some 36 other groups, Bazelon wrote:
“Imminent Danger” portrays individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia as people with
hopeless futures whose primary life options are hospitalization, homelessness, or incarceration.
The segment provides no indication that individuals with schizophrenia can and do live fulfilling
lives, start their own families, work, live independently, and participate fully in their
communities. Instead, such individuals are painted as consigned to a life of misery and as
ticking time bombs with the potential to become violent at any time.
The segment perpetuates false assumptions that there is a significant link between mental
health conditions and violence. Indeed, the point of the segment seems to be that mass shootings
would be preventable if it were easier to hospitalize individuals with psychiatric disabilities.
The letter attacks Dr. Torrey personally and insists that involuntary commitment laws that require immediate dangerousness are not to blame for severely mentally ill individuals being denied treatment or ending up in jails and prisons. The letter states:
Dr. Torrey’s focus on hospitalization and forced treatment as the primary need in mental health systems is at odds with a virtual national consensus that the focus should be community services.
No one who is familiar with The Bazelon Center and Dr. Torrey should be surprised by this complaint. As I explain in my book, Bazelon was originally known as the Mental Health Law Project, a Washington D.C. based group of attorneys who began fighting to protect the civil rights of persons with mental illnesses in the 1970s. These attorneys were responsible for winning the key legal cases that today require a showing of dangerousness in involuntary commitment cases and rulings that gave defendants the same constitutional protections that criminal ones get during trials. One of the group’s original attorneys, Bruce Ennis, did not believe in involuntary commitment under any circumstances.
Given that Bazelon led the charge to shutter state hospitals, I imagine the unnamed author of the group’s letter also bristled when Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart remarked on camera that:
“…you have a society that finds it wrong to have people warehoused in a state mental institution, but those very same people were OK if we warehouse ‘em in a jail. It’s just– you’ve got to be kidding me.”
Dr. Torrey and his organization, known as TAC, was formed in 1998, to challenge many of the laws that Bazelon pushed through, as explained by the TAC website.
After consulting with other experts in the mental health and legal fields, Dr. Torrey concluded that a concentrated effort was needed to reform state civil commitment laws so that decompensating individuals with severe mental illness received treatment before they became dangerous, homeless, incarcerated, victimized or suffered other common consequences of non-treatment.
In a recent issue of Psychology Today, Dr. Lloyd I. Sederer offers his take on involuntary commitment. Although I’ve not met Dr. Sederer, I’ve exchanged emails with him and I am reprinting his article here to give you yet another point of view.
Involuntary Psychiatric Hospitalization: A life saving yet often aversive intervention
Lloyd I. Sederer, MD
The wake of too long a string of dark, violent and murderous attacks across our country has reignited debate regarding the use of involuntary hospitalization (and treatment) for people with serious mental illness. The media stories have usually focused on violence to others, though they often omit the more than 38,000 people annually who commit suicide—almost always suffering from an active mental disorder that leaves them hopeless, psychically agonized and too alone.
Some argue that people with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of crime than perpetrators. Others assert that missed opportunities to hospitalize and treat those who appear to be a growing public menace contribute to the tragic outcomes that can ensue. Still others claim that the loss of psychiatric hospital beds over the decades has contributed to today’s unsafe communities, and call for more money to restore what has been lost.
As these questions are debated, families, communities and clinicians experience every day the tragedy of ineffectively identified and treated mental illness. The greatest tragedies typically come at the end of a downward spiral that almost always is heralded by months of psychiatric deterioration and distancing from services and supports that could reverse an outcome that no one wants. Situations that end up in crisis predictably evoke responses aimed to ensure community safety, which include commitment and police intervention; when that happens a ‘nobody wins’ situation generally ensues.