Recently one of our readers posted this comment:
“If any Shrink Rapper ever has the time and inclination it would be interesting to read about what you would do to fix the mental health system, particularly the issue of involuntary hospitalization, if you had unlimited funds and political resources. You’ve been in the trenches, it would be great to hear your thoughts.”
Over on Peter Earley’s blog I see that he will testify before a U.S. house subcommittee regarding issues related to violence and severe mental illness. He is asking for people to contribute responses to six specific questions he expects to be asked.
Meanwhile, I have my own thoughts about this which may or may not be directly relevant to the six questions, but I want to bring this to the attention of the subcommittee if Mr. Earley would be kind enough to include it.
First, a bit about why I think my experience and ideas are relevant.
As a forensic psychiatrist, I evaluate and treat severely mentally ill people who are or have been violent. I see the rare exceptions, the people who as a result of their disease commit acts that seriously injure or kill others. As a correctional psychiatrist I have also evaluated and treated thousands of prisoners, many of whom also have serious psychiatric disorders.
I will emphasize, as you’ve already heard from others, that violent offenses due to psychosis are the exception to the rule. Almost all crimes of violence are not committed by people with schizophrenia or other psychotic disorders. Drug and alcohol abuse is the culprit in most violent crimes and we must vigorously address this and do more to provide treatment to people with substance abuse problems at the time that they are willing to accept treatment.
From evaluating insanity acquittees, people who are found not criminally responsible for their crimes due to mental illness, I’ve learned that one significant systemic problem is the lack of public awareness about psychosis and how to recognize prodromal symptoms. Often the early symptoms get written off as attributable to some other life stressor: the breakup of a relationship, the stress of a young adult’s transition to college or some other understandable life event. Sadness, withdrawal from family, loss of interest in hobbies or friendships can be explained in this context. However, as the illness gets worse and the patient’s personality changes, there is more recognition that something serious is going on. Friends, neighbors and teachers recognize psychosis only when there is increasing disorganization, inability to complete tasks, or eventual bizarre behavior and unusual statements.
Therefore, my first suggestion to address violence due to mental illness would be to provide better public education to recognize emerging psychosis.
Once the psychotic episode is recognized for what it is, the challenge for families then becomes figuring out what to do. Finding a psychiatrist and getting prompt evaluation and treatment is a tremendous challenge particularly in rural or underserved areas. In southwestern Minnesota where I was raised, there is only one fulltime psychiatrist serving a seven county area of 70,000 people. Our local Baltimore City Detention Center has a higher per capita number of psychiatrists than my hometown. That has to change.
My second recommendation is this: the government needs to provide increased funding for medical education, particularly the training of psychiatrists. There should be additional incentives, beyond Federal public health service commitments, to work in underserved regions or state facilities.
All of my patients are institutionalized but most will return to the community eventually. Insanity acquittees typically are hospitalized for substantially longer than they would have been incarcerated if convicted. The majority of my mentally ill offenders are convicted of misdemeanor property offenses that are drug or alcohol-related, and return to the community within months to a few years. Regardless of the length of confinement, we need better programs to transition patients from a public institution to the community. Insanity acquittees and mentally ill offenders need housing, transportation, educational and vocational programs in addition to addressing their medical and mental health needs. Lack of adequate community services and transition plans are a key factor in unnecessarily prolonged hospitalizations.
Many recent high profile crimes have lead the public to demand looser civil commitment standards and easing of laws for involuntary treatment. In my opinion, this creates an adversarial atmosphere and unnecessarily sets families in opposition to their mentally ill loved ones. People with psychiatric illnesses have legitimate reasons to oppose confinement, and we should examine these reasons thoroughly and address them.
Some public psychiatric hospitals, of the few that remain, are antiquated and dilapidated. We need to improve environmental conditions of these facilities and address the poor ventilation, bad plumbing and faulty infrastructure. The inpatient unit should emphasize treatment plans that respect a patient’s educational level, skills and interests rather than focussing solely on disability. Inpatient safety and security are increasing concerns, leading some patients to be strip-searched arbitrarily. We must improve hospital security to protect both patients and staff from physical assault. As a recent story in our local newspaper indicates, concern about violence is not limited to free society and must be addressed within facilities as well.
Finally, we need to reinvigorate collaborative treatment planning through the use of psychiatric advance directives. Make them meaningful and useful. Currently patients don’t trust them because they know doctors can override them. Ironically, doctors don’t trust advance directives for exactly the same reason—because they can be revoked by patients. We need to update psychiatric advance directive laws to make them binding, effective and safe, then make sure treatment providers are educated about their use.
Thank you for reading this far. We can’t make the system perfect, but I’m sure we can make it better.
Annette Hanson is a psychiatrist and co-author of Shrink Rap: Three Psychiatrists Explain Their Work. She blogs at Shrink Rap.