Society Fails the Chronically and Persistently Mentally Ill

Many mentally ill individuals now live on the streets or are treated in jail.

Posted Aug 20, 2019

Lynn Nanos, used with permission
Source: Lynn Nanos, used with permission

In this post, I will temporarily move away from my usual focus on personality disorders, family dynamics, and self-destructive behavior to talk about the abysmal treatment of the severely and persistently mentally ill  (SPMI’s - mostly people with schizophrenia) in the USA and it’s deterioration since I trained in psychiatry in the late 1970s.

As readers familiar with my writings on other sites know, I have been very critical of psychiatry for the deterioration of the diagnostic process and its ridiculous over-emphasis on genetics and often-irrelevant brain “pathology” over psychological and family dysfunction. Because of that, some readers have mistakenly gotten the impression that I don’t believe that any psychiatric disorders (like schizophrenia and true bipolar disorder  - not for what passes for it these days) are real brain diseases either. They are. I addressed this in this post.

The issue of the deterioration of the treatment of SPMI’s is addressed in Lynn Nanos' impressive new book, Breakdown: A Clinician's Experience in a Broken System of Emergency Psychiatry. I have personally witnessed the evolution of these problematic developments.

So-called patients’ rights advocates, some social justice warriors, and many politicians all seem to think that people who are found by police running nude on a freeway fleeing because they think the CIA is bombarding them with ray guns in order to control their minds (the likes of which I saw all the time when I worked in psych emergency rooms) are exhibiting what they term as “just a variation of normal behavior.” This idea, along with government’s general problems with taxes and spending, has led to large numbers of mentally ill homeless people living in sleeping bags on the streets of major U.S. cities, and to the current situation in which more of them are now treated in jails because of nuisance crimes rather than in hospitals. Los Angeles County jail was at one point, if it is not still, the largest mental hospital in the country.

Before I get to the Nanos book, a little of my own experience.

David M. Allen
Homeless under the 405 freeway on Venice Blvd. in L.A.
Source: David M. Allen

By the time I had started my residency, the passage in California of the Lanterman Petris Short (LPS) Act in 1972 - followed by the passage of similar laws in many other states - had for the most part cleared up a lot of the abuses in the state hospital system that anti-psychiatry groups still go on and on about as if they were still common. It insured that the cases of patients who had been hospitalized involuntarily could be reviewed by the courts within 17 days or sooner. Patients were almost never held against their will for longer than 17 days. Psychiatrists in the system could no longer just let patients languish in the hospital forever by merely following what a previous doctor had said without doing their own personal evaluation, or by avoiding closely following the patients’ condition to see if there were any changes.

No longer would patients linger in hospitals for years because of a misdiagnosis. For example, patients with the severe but very treatable bipolar disorder (in which, if psychotic episodes occur, they are often relatively short-lived) had often been diagnosed with the far less treatable schizophrenia (especially if they were African American). Occasionally someone had been hospitalized for decades because unscrupulous relatives conspired to steal their money by labeling them with a mental illness with the help of a gullible or greedy psychiatrist.

After the laws mandating court review were in place, people who were hospitalized back then often agreed to stay much longer than 17 days -  because their paranoid delusions and hallucinations had been somewhat controlled with anti-psychotic meds. Up until that point they had anosognosia - the lack of awareness that anything might be wrong with them. After they became less delusional, they began to understand that they needed treatment. Nanos discusses this issue extensively in her book.

Psych meds often take two to three weeks just to kick in or need to be changed to something else after that period of time because one agent was ineffective while another might not be - which in a sense would restart the whole clock - so often they had to remain hospitalized for several weeks. Nowadays, however, they are discharged from hospitals before the medications even have a chance to work, are still anosognostic when they leave, and hence often stop them soon after discharge. 

The previous longer time frame also allowed psychiatrists in training to see firsthand the course of major psychiatric illnesses and monitor the longer term responses to treatment. Now they have not seen that and are often somewhat ignorant about it. The longer stays also allowed doctors time to make a better determination about whether the patient’s primary issue was actually drug abuse rather than some other chronic mental illness, and refer drug abusers to appropriate rehab treatment.

Committed psychotic patients at that time could be forced to take anti-psychotic meds prior to any court review even if they refused. That has since changed in most jurisdictions. I cannot for the life of me see the point of committing a patient involuntarily when the doctors cannot then treat them.

In the ’70s, even though the state hospitals were beginning to discharge their long-term patients under the justification that antipsychotic meds would allow for effective outpatient treatment, hospital stays were long enough to allow ward social workers to arrange for placement in board and care type living situations, get the patients enrolled in Social Security Disability (SSI) to pay for it, and make follow-up appointments in community mental health centers so that patients could continue to receive their medications. Community mental health centers were also far more numerous and available for this purpose than they are today. Many states have defunded them to an extreme extent.

The LPS criteria for hospitalizing someone against their will were very reasonable: both mentally ill and a danger to self, a danger to others, or gravely disabled. The latter meant that due to their mental illness they were unable to provide for their own food, clothing, and shelter. A cardboard box on a street did not qualify as the ability to provide for their own shelter. But now it does!

A “danger to self” did not just mean suicidal, also as it seems to today; it could refer to dangers to self due to delusions and poor judgment, such as walking into someone’s house who might mistake them for a burglar and shoot them. Sometimes doctors considering a California 5150 72-hour commitment hold had to pump relatives for information they could use to justify that. I recall one patient’s relative finally telling me, after I asked many follow-up questions, that the patient had tried to get out of a moving car.

The author of Breakdown, Lynn Nanos, is a social worker who works for a psychiatric emergency services team, and has seen and documented the monstrous changes in the previously described public mental health treatment of chronically ill SPMI’s. She provides sad, disturbing, and hair-raising case studies of suicides and murders of both family members and strangers due to the premature discharge of dangerous, delusional patients who did not think they were ill and refused treatment.

Hospital stays have now been whittled down to just a few days, so that anosognostic patients are either not referred for psychiatric follow-up at all, or do not show up even if they had been. Many are discharged with no prescription medication to take after they leave.

Nanos makes the case that the commonly-heard idea that chronic psychiatric patients are less likely to commit violence than others is highly misleading. While true, it ignores the significant minority of mentally ill folks who do have violent propensities – and who are often more dangerous than others – when their violent episodes could have been stopped if they had received proper medication. Not to mention that the violence-prone mentally ill are highly unlikely to participate in the epidemiological studies that are the basis of the misleading argument. Dead family members have lost all of their rights. Many suicides of those who are “dying with their rights on” could also likely have been prevented.

The patients’ “rights” warriors never seem to inquire as to why so many of these patients now end up in jail. Could it be that such patients don’t realize they are mentally ill and are responding to command hallucinations to assault others, or are committing nuisance crimes like disturbing the peace or trespassing because they do not know any better? Even when they kill someone, the not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity defense seldom succeeds, particularly after John Hinckley tried to kill President Reagan. Reagan himself did not appear to think mental illness was real when his administration attempted in the early 1980s to kick all the chronic schizophrenics off SSI until the courts stepped in.

According to Nanos, private hospitals often tend to favor hospitalizing malingerers who fake mental illness in order to have a place to stay and receive food, over the more highly disturbed and potentially violent SPMI’s who really need the beds. This, along with drastic decreases in the number of available beds, has led to a situation in which patients are stuck in hospital emergency rooms  - manned by staff that are ill-equipped to handle them - for days at a time until a bed is finally found or until they are in frustration discharged by the facility to the streets. There are also financial incentives to treat “easier” patients due to the fact that they have shorter hospital stays and hospitals are financially incentivized to keep stays short.

She makes a good case for assisted outpatient programs (AOTs), which help patients stay with treatment despite not being forced to take their medication. Mental health professionals and judges attempt to persuade the recipients to adhere to their prescribed medications and attend their clinical outpatient appointments with psychotherapists, psychiatrists, and case managers. All AOT involves intensive case management services and comprehensive supervision.

Several studies indicate that AOT’s, particular those that last 180 days, significantly reduce violence, re-admissions to hospitals, no-shows at outpatient appointments, arrests, jail time, self-harm, suicide attempts, and substance abuse, while significantly improving the self-care of SPMI patients. Nonetheless, even AOT’s are opposed by various special interests. In Massachusetts, its opponents even include the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, which is supposed to be advocating for these patients.

Unfortunately, these patients are downright lousy at advocating for themselves, so it’s going to take a lot of other people speaking up before things go back to the far more functional way they were just a few decades ago.