12 February 2013

Dr. Torrey Might Have A Good Idea, But What Does It Mean For LGBT People?

This morning, I caught a segment of C-Span's Washington Journal in which Libby Casey interviewed psychiatrist and schizophrenia researcher Dr. E. Fuller Torrey.  

Recently, Dr. Torrey wrote about John F. Kennedy's proposal, 50 years ago, that the Federal government would fund community mental health centers (CMHCs) to replace big mental hospitals run by the states.  (Willowbrook in Staten Island, New York was one of the most infamous examples.)  At the time, most people thought this was a good idea because institutions like Willowbrook were, in essence, warehouses for the mentally ill that often made their patients worse.  Also, the first effective treatments for mental illnesses were becoming available around that time.

However, as Dr. Torrey pointed out, the nature of some of those illnesses--including schizophrenia and bipolar disorder--were not understood as the brain diseases they are rather than as problems that could be talked away through therapy.  So, the de-institutionalization of thousands of mental patients that resulted from JFK's proposal had a terrible, if unintended, consequence:  Many people who need treatment are homeless, in prison or, worse, committing violent crimes.  (He said, in essence, that the last few episodes of mass murder, including the Newtown and Aurora massacres, were "predictable".)  He asserts--correctly, I believe--that some mentally ill people need to stay in a hospital or some similar setting, at least for some period of time and that they need medication or some other form of treatment.  Also, CMHCs were not interested in (and, in many cases, didn't have the wherewithal for) treating the severely ill patients who were released when large state mental hospitals closed down.  Rather, they focused on helping what are sometimes called "the worried well".

Dr. Torrey believes that the Federal government should get out of the business of treating mentally ill people and turn that responsibility back to the states.  He believes that because mental illnesses such as schizophrenia are better understood than they were 50 years ago, and better treatments are available, the states now have the know-how to do a better job than they did back then.  He does advocate Federal oversight, but thinks the states should run the programs.

On the surface, this sounds like a good idea.  However, I find one potential problem.  I'm not quite sure that I completely agree with Dr. Thomas Szaz's notion that there's no such thing as mental illness, but I agree that, at least to some degree, it's whatever people define it to be.  The DSM is an example of this:  According to the DSM-IV, I am mentally ill, but in the upcoming DSM-V, I am not.  

So, if transgenderism--or male homosexuality, or lesbianism--could be re-classified from one edition to another of a reference guide used by clinicians and insurers, who's to say that different states won't have their own definitions of "mental illness"?  Many LGBT people who aren't much older than I am can recall friends, siblings or colleagues who were committed--and even received electroshock treatments--for expressing their love for people of their own gender, or the fact that they aren't the genders indicated on their birth certificates.  In fact, at least two I know personally were institutionalized and were subjected to shock  and drug "therapies".  Who's to say that such things won't happen again--or that we won't be criminalized outright and incarcerated, at least in some states. 

I don't think I'm expressing irrational fears, or even far-out fantasies: After all, sodomy and even wearing things that are considered inappropriate for one's gender are illegal in some jurisdictions.  Dr. Torrey might respond that Federal oversight might ensure consistent standards.  He might be right, but I can envision certain states resisting, in whatever ways they can, any Federal incursion into what they believe to be their domains.

In any event, I think his ideas are certainly worth exploring.  For the most part, I agree with him when he says the states can't do worse than the Federal government has done on the issue.  At least, I know some states can and will do better.  Given its track record before JFK's proposal, I'm not sure that New York, where I life, is one of those states