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Mental Illness and The Law: How We Got Where We Are June 29, 2010

Posted by Crazy Mermaid in History, Insanity, Involuntary Committment, Mental Hospital, mental illness, Mental Illness and Medication, Psychotic.
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If you want to change things, first you need to understand how they got the way they are.  In the case of mental illness law, politicians and lawyers had the best of intentions, but as with other ventures, the devil was in the details.  The unintended consequences of their actions continue to remain the source of frustration and even danger.

In his 1946 article “Bedlam 1946: Most Mental Hospitals Are A Shame and A Disgrace” http://www.mnddc.org/parallels2/prologue/6a-bedlam/bedlam-life1946.pdf in Life Magazine, Albert Maisel made the case that mental hospitals were terrible institutions.  The final paragraph of his article summarized his point succinctly: “Given the facts…the people of any state will rally… to put an end to concentration camps that masquerade as ( mental) hospitals and to make cure rather than incarceration the goal of their mental institutions.”

While the sentiment is perfectly understandable given the horrific conditions he found when he investigated the state of mental hospitals throughout the United States shortly after the close of World War Two, he threw out the baby with the bath water when he declared, in effect, that nobody should have to be institutionalized.  The wildly popular Life Magazine gave Maisel a platform from which to launch his idea of closing all mental hospitals, also called deinstitutionalizing the mentally ill.

Helping this idea along was the development of the first generation of antipsychotic drugs in the 1950’s. Used to treat schizophrenia and other psychoses as well as acute mania, agitation and other conditions, their discovery allowed many mentally ill people once hospitalized to return to their families, hopefully with their illness under control and able to function as productive members of society in many cases.  In many cases this was true, but not in all.

The advent of these new antipsychotics lent fuel to the fire of the deinstitutionalization movement, and, combined with the publicity of the atrocities perpetuated in the mental hospitals, served to throw the doors to the mental institutions wide open in the mid-1950’s.

From the mid-1950’s to the mid-1960’s, a small percentage of the eventually deinstitutionalized were released. But from that point forward, the trickle became a flood, culminating in the release of the majority of the mentally ill by the mid-1980’s. And as the mentally ill were released from the hospitals, rather than wait to see whether whether the experiment was going to work, those hospitals were closed down forever, shrinking from a high of around 550,000 beds in the mid-1950’s to around 40,000 today. As this experiment failed,the homeless and prison populations of every major city and State ballooned.

In the meantime, California was the first state to pass the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act in 1967, giving the mentally ill the legal right to avoid treatment for their mental illness, regardless of how damaging that mental illness became. Unless the person was in imminent (immediate) danger of severely harming or killing themselves or someone else, they had the right to be left alone, free to wander the streets, homeless and victimized, eating out of dumpsters, lost in their own world. Other States followed their example, with the former Governor of California, Ronald Reagan, leading the charge on a national level as he ascended the highest office in the land, the Presidency.

The mistakes the do-gooders made in this two-pronged approach of first deinstitutionalizing and then arming the mentally ill with the right to refuse treatment were twofold.  Their first mistake was  in perceiving all hospitalization to be bad hospitalization. Secondly they assumed that anyone who has a mental illness has the presence of mind to know when to seek treatment for that illness.

Treating mental illness like any other illness, disregarding the fact that one of the symptoms of the illness can be a failure to realize they are ill, and denigrating all mental hospitals as evil are poor choices for which we have all paid dearly, in the form of the fallout from our endless supply of suicides, the incarcerated mentally ill population, the homeless population, and mentally ill people who attack and assault others.

Until we realize that mental hospitals can also be used for good, and that mentally ill people can’t always help themselves, nothing will change.

(Note:  Part of my research for this article was done with the help of Dr. E. Fuller Torrey’s book The Insanity Offense. (2008).

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Comments»

1. Astrid - July 3, 2010

I fo rone disagree with your pro-institutionalization message. However, I recognize that similar problems to those you raise are in the Netherlands. Here, we didn’t liberata the mental health patients till the 1990s, and it took a European human rights court ruling that the old mental health act was inhumane to achieve this. However, psychiatrists and possibly some patients are saying that the current law is too lenient and allows for too many mentally ill people to be untreated. There’s a proposal for a new law, one I strongly oppose, which would allow for forced inpatient and outpatient treatment.

2. Crazy Mermaid - July 4, 2010

So how do we handle these situations? You know the ones I mean.


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