The Largest Psych Hospital in America, Psst. It’s A Jail…

A couple of years ago I wrote a post in another blog about the incongruity that the Harris Co. Jail in Houston TX was the country’s largest inpatient public psychiatric hospital in disguise. This week an article in the local Houston press reminded me of Houston’s Harris Co. Jail ‘claim to fame:’Houston’s biggest jail wants to shed its reputation as a mental health treatment center
Ever the trickster brother even in my elder years, at that time, I actually brought this to the attention of my non-mental-health-issues-aware sister who lives there. I would tease her and ask her to arrange a tour for me there when I had an upcoming visit. I laid the teasing on thick, adding a hint, dear to her heart, that I might consider moving there since Harris County Jail was advertising for psychiatrists to work there, and a large number, FIFTEEN back then.

 

Everyone seems to have heard about Rikers Island prison in New York City and its horrors, overcrowding, deaths etc. I suppose it does not help Rikers’ public image much since it has been mentioned in every episode of Law and Order for over 20 years on television. And I further suppose Harris County Jail has been happy to fly well under Rikers’ blip on the national consciousness radar.

Another acquaintance of mine in the Houston who is in government tells me the officials in the area governments are very sensitive to stories like this about their county jail and do not want it lumped together with other infamous jails such as Cook County (Chicago), Los Angeles, Phoenix, etc. And who can blame them? A quote from the article brought to me by my trusty Google Search New Bots hinted at this sensitivity: ” The Harris County sheriff’s office doesn’t want its jail to be the largest mental health facility in Texas anymore.”I must preface my coming complimentary remarks about Texas’ efforts in the state’s jail systems by stating that in my estimation, Texas is one of the several states in the country that is making huge and creditworthy reform efforts on many fronts in their entire state’s mental health care delivery system.  The legislature formed a task force on mental health in 2014-5, and it actually DID something. It issued a very comprehensive report in a year’s time. It is a piece of landmark analysis and goals. And, to top it off, the state legislature in Texas started drafting and passing concrete reform legislation. They started talking about spending up to $500M initially in a few years to get the massive, multifaceted statewide effort underway. It was all the more amazing since the Texas state legislature was the same body that had a number of its legislators hide in motels across state lines in another state to avoid a politically contentious vote several years ago. It was the laughing stock of the country for a week or so as all kinds of media and Internet games and memes started about where the missing lawmakers were. Pseudo rewards were offered. Petitions were started by wags and satirists to rename the missing officials “Waldo.” Kinky Friedman the inimitable  Texas satirist and sometime candidate for the Governorship had a field day. Molly Ivins, the late great political satirist of Texas, was said to have been sighted in the Legislature and her newspaper’s offices. It was great theater.

The Harris Co. Jail has a triaging setup that is situated RIGHT AT the front intake booking desk. A trained officer with a communicating wireless tablet can consult with a nearby consulting psychiatrist to start the referral process form evaluation and treatment within the jail complex. Harris Co. Jail has decided that it will not pursue a mental health “diversion” program like many other judicial systems have started. In point of fact, Texas has started dozens of pilot diversion programs in counties elsewhere in the state. This model is felt to fit better in smaller counties with much smaller local jail populations.

So rather than having the ‘diversion-referral process start in the courtroom, this process is situated at the receiving desk of the jail. The model is structured so that the staff, from the trained deputies to the consulting mental health providers (from counselors to psychiatric social workers and psychologists to the close-by psychiatrist) on down, have a more vertically integrated and functional system that makes sense. It can be activated for any arriving inmate right at the first contact within the jail. It is certainly a novel approach and should be studied and likely tried elsewhere.

The jail has its own inpatient unit, the Harris County Psychiatric Center, which has nearly 300 beds. This is filled all the time and has a waiting list from the rest of the jail’s population. The jail as a whole, has long known that 1 in 4 or its total population have mental illness and need medication based psychiatric treatment and management. Nationally, over 400,00 inmates have psychiatric illnesses needing ongoing treatment, a staggering number.

Texas’s and Harris County’s efforts are to be applauded, followed closely and studied. Hopefully, it is a sign of things to come.

 

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Radical De-institutionalization History in Italy

In my journey through my training centers becoming a psychiatrist, I was accidentally graced that my medical school and subsequent residency centers had medical libraries with superb historical collections. There are a number of other medical school libraries who have similar collections. At Michigan and then at Duke, I found myself spending empty hours reading histories of medicine and then psychiatry in the rarefied collections rooms. These left an indelible mark in my reading appetites that have lasted my entire professional life.

The past five decades of exposure and experience have faced me with the enormous shifts in practice models, the wrenching changes in mental health service delivery since the 1950’s, and continuing dilemmas posed by seductive national solutions that brought with them worsening problems. The overall shift in western mental health care has swung from outpatient care for the well-off seen by private practitioners, the subsequent mental health center movement for the general populace from the 1960’s through the 1980’s, and the even larger but mostly unseen segment of public inpatient psychiatric hospital care that dwarfed all other portions of the mental health care pie. This last “market” underwent the most severe changes of all. By the latter 1960’s the movement to close state psychiatric hospitals was underway fueled by the new sociologic analyses of authors like Erving Goffman and the emergence national awareness of the wretched, medieval conditions of state hospitals and wretched treatment of patients. Commitment laws came to be humanized with respect for patients’ rights to legal representation after the 1974 Supreme Court Wyatt vs. Stickney decision. De-institutionalization, the discharging of inpatients from state hospitals proceeded through the 1990’s, eventually emptying states’ psychiatric hospitals of roughly 4/5 of their beds, closing old hospitals in wholesale fashion.

Many figures played major roles in this profoundly important movement. R. D. Laing in the UK tried treating schizophrenic patients in more open, experimental settings. Typical of those times, whether in state hospitals or a number of private free-standing hospitals, patient governments were formed. Patients were encouraged and helped to make many personal and treatment decisions for themselves. The “therapeutic community” movement arose out of, and in parallel, grew from this non-authoritarian, more democratic hospital life. Hospitals were opened up to the community. Echoing rehabilitation practices of nearly a century before, patients were permitted to work and earn money. Social activities were begun with the return of art, dance, crafts, and musical pursuits.

One very influential source of the de-institutionalization movement in psychiatric hospital care came from Italy in the 1960’s. This piece of psychiatric history is little known in the USA.

The Italian psychiatrist who pioneered many of the components of radical change in public psychiatric hospitals was Dr. Franco Basaglia. His story is nothing short of fascinating. As is so often the case in the culture of Italian figures no matter what their field of endeavor, his crusade began to take shape in his younger years being exposed to different mass political movements and periods of social upheaval in Italy. He was born into the fascist periods of Italy before and through World War II. He absorbed radical social concepts from the communist and socialist movements of post-war Italy. These concepts guided him to become the effective psychiatric reformer that led to his national fame and regard. This kind of personal development would be viewed as heretical, treasonous and would prevent any achievement in this conservative America. But in Italy, Basaglia’s social-intellectual development made perfect sense.

Basaglia did all the things we think of radical in a wretched state hospital. He empowered patients, tore down fences, did away with tortuous physical treatment, had patients go into the community and so on. He did all this in a true backwater town on the northern border away from any and all big cities and centers of thought and social change. He worked for several years in isolation and obscurity. Then through a fascinating chain of fortuitous events, his efforts began to be noticed and the powerful beacons of the press and celebrity status quickly enveloped him, his work and his staff.

His efforts came quickly to be acclaimed and trumpeted nationally and internationally. His influence in Italy was far beyond that of any of America’s famous reformers such as Dorothea Dix, Nelly Bly, Erving Goffman, Laing and all the others. Italy responded with the national social change that has only been equaled in the Scandinavian countries, not France, nor the UK and especially not in the United States.

With a few years, a reform law was passed in Italy named after Basaglia. It set the national goal of the closure of ALL the public state psychiatric hospitals!

This was indeed fully accomplished, a feat that is beyond astounding in the annals of national social change. For several decades now in Italy, there have been no mass hospitalizations of the chronically mentally ill. There do not seem to be hundreds of thousands of “CMI” (chronically mentally ill) persons everywhere on the streets of Italy. Somehow Italy with all its frequent political crises, changes in governments, scandals, raucous politics and all the other tumult that seems par for the national life of Italy, has done what other western societies cannot care pretty well for the nation’s mentally ill.

I would refer the reader who might be interested in the history of Dr. Franco Basaglia and the “reformation” of Italy’s national mental health de-institutionalization and revolution to the writings of Prof. John Foot of the University of Bristol in England. His book, The Man Who Closed the Asylums: Franco Basaglia and the Revolution in Mental Health Care  is well worth the read. An online article published in VERSO, “Closing the Asylums,” gives readers a worthy overview into Dr. Basaglia, the times and his accomplishments.

Realizing what Basaglia accomplished forty years ago leaves this student of psychiatry, its history, and observer of our current national crises, sad for where we have been trapped by our own hobbling prejudices, resistance to social change and pattern of quickie formulas that led to the all too familiar conundrum of “unintended consequences,” and bigger and more complex messes with each year in mental health care delivery.

Drug Free Inpatient Psychiatric Care in Norway

Asgard Psychiatric Hospital, Tromso, Norway, credit “Mad in America” blog, March 2017 [http://bit.ly/2wbRrJW]
In my previous post I ended up writing an overview of the changes over the time of the last 24 years since I personally date “mental health reform” commencing in this country as being the year 1992 when news of the beginning sweeping changes (at first budgetary adjustments due to the falling state’s revenues during the implosion of the Big Three Automakers) that surfaced in Michigan under then Governor John Engler. In short the progression went something (very approximately) like this: cutting of mental health budgets, closing of public inpatient psychiatric beds (downsizing of out of date, out of code, aged state hospital relics), closure of multiple facilities, conversion of the “county mental health center” based system of care delivery from the 1963 JFK Comprehensive Mental Health Center Act (that name is from memory and may not be completely correct) to regional agencies that covered larger areas and population groups, conversion from combined state and county funding to various forms of block grant funding still heavily reliant upon federal Medicaid funding (this is ‘mucho importante’–as my Texican father would say for emphasis–and must NOT be forgotten as it is still pivotal today), to beginning versions of degrees of privatization of these regional mental health care delivery agencies, opening outpatient mental health services to entrepreneurial provider-business groups who were somewhat free to pick and choose what types of services they wished to deliver and which they wished to avoid and not pick up.
In the early phases of this general blueprint of national mental health reform, as it came to assume the stature of as more states adopted this governmental approach, there was much optimism that fueled understandably this effort. Many different groups seemed to be more involved than ever before, including private enterprise, a novelty in and of itself. The boundaries between private mental health care centered previously in private free standing psychiatric hospitals and units in private community or university medical centers and the world of private office psychiatry, and (whew), the worlds of public mental health centers and state psychiatric hospitals began to blur especially on the outpatient side of things. Hospitals bought psychiatric practices as they had been doing with medical practices. Small private psychiatric groups either had to greatly expand numbers of sorts of practitioners and services (more non-MD staff and services) and expand patient volume, or be absorbed by hospitals that had gobs of capital and could assume and handle the higher and higher costs of overhead (billing especially which became a nightmare in the late 1980’s), or close. There seemed to be at least in my part of the world a phase of retirement by choice of more than the usual attrition-retirement rate of private psychiatrists. I recall a medium small city of less than 100,000 in which all three private/public child psychiatrists other than myself left practice and the area in the mid 2000’s as the enormous forces of the change washed over the practice world. A number of practitioners affiliated with highly capitalized hospital groups and survived in that manner. Others simply moved lock stock and barrel in more affluent metropolitan areas with strong economies and higher standards of living to a cash only, no insurance practice model that had long existed especially in affluent cities with large university medical schools and departments of psychiatry that quietly influenced their training program graduates to stay in those areas and practice the solo cash only model since the 1960’s or so.
Now I think we are in the post revolution phase. Many models are in use, many are finally getting stable footing, strengths are being recognized and resources more appropriately developed and mobilized (mobile crisis intervention and outreach ACT teams). Similarly on a not so good, no reason for victory dances yet, side of things that deficits are now more glaring than ever. Inpatient services have contracted dramatically everywhere. Private psychiatric hospitals closed or were converted to other uses, some nationally sized private psychiatric hospital chains closed dramatically in the very early 2000’s as once abundant insurance reimbursements (at least a fair to a hefty portion of such poorly managed and spent causing 20 years of a “private psychiatric hospital bubble” to implode. Inpatient beds decreased in this country for mental health treatment decreased perhaps by as much as half which is mind bending if one ponders that as the population was still growing, drug abuse was increasing exponentially. Even the VA Hospital system was not prepared as seen in its inability to handle and furnish adequate services for several years after Desert Storm (brief as it was) and especially after the War on Terror began in earnest in 2003 with Iraq. The VA Hospital went through its own version of excruciating upheaval as it had to “reform” its mental health services, head rolled, appointment scheduling scandals erupted (please recall the Phoenix Indian School Road VA Hospital mess ten years ago).
The streets, ERs, and jails became the new “receiving units” for the chronically and acutely mentally ill, the trans-institutionalization consequence of the above shrinkage of the existing5130-year-old mental health infrastructure. This has been and is still being more than adequately covered in local, regional and national media of all types and I will not further belabor here.
I would like to direct our attention to one new and not so new treatment model that is making a comeback in the midst of all this controlled change and “disruption” of existing models (Internet speak), or paradigm shift of the philosopher Clifford Kuhn. That is inpatient psychiatric treatment without psychiatric medications.
At the top of this post is a picture of a psychiatric hospital Asgard, in Trosmo, Norway (I must confess I am totally unschooled in the existence of either before I found this blog post article). This hospital is as the article/post details 215 miles north of the Arctic Circle. I have lived for some months on three occasions in my youth following my peregrinating international rambling mining engineering father to his contracted job sites that were snowy cold climates but none of them would compare at all to what I imagine the clime of this location.

The means by which I came upon this article entitled, “The Door To A Revolution in Psychiatry Opens,” is worth detailing. The author of the blog post is Robert Whitaker, a journalist and author of two books about the history of psychiatry, one of which I have and have read with great enjoyment, fascination and a good for the soul dose of humility, Mad In American: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, And The Enduring Mistreatment Of The Mentally Ill [click link for Amazon review etc.]. Mr. Whitaker is in the foe of psychiatry camp along with perhaps better known anti-psychiatry physician Peter Breggin MD. Mr. Whitaker’s book focuses on the failings and disasters, failed theories, bad side effects of many psychiatric medicines and so on. In all fairness I follow him with searchbots on the Net and this turned up. If you loathe all things psychiatric, then this is one of the books for you in truth. Form my point of view it is a needed viewpoint and one to help us in the guild…though I do not think of myself as all that nefarious and evil, and talented writers such as he are to be commended and accepted for their necessary work.

So why is this seeming sidebar important in this post? Mr. Whitaker is a founder of the aforementioned blog, Mad In America and his perspective and where he starts from is reflected in the blog and his book. And the article in the blog that one of my trusty bots found which is referenced for the intrepid reader above, is about the manifestation and another test and trial of medication free treatment. This is being conducted by well meaning and very well trained professionals. From the blog’s post which is very lengthy (even moreso than my usual oververbal posts) details the enormous and creditable preparation that has gone into this movement in Norway. This is no heretical nut job splinter movement. The government of Norway is mandating the trials of this mode of inpatient treatment which is apparently being, or gong to be tried in other psychiatric hospitals as well. The post makes for absolutely fascinating reading.
In the United States we have had a few experiences with such models in this general realm. A few exclusive (I guess that would be an appropriate word to apply to hospitals for the wealthy and famous) psychiatric hospitals tried this approach on small scales in those heady days of the 1960’s and 1970’s when some might say a bit derogatorially, “anything went.” Most of the practice groups were spearheaded or led by charismatic psychiatrists operating within a small clique or group with similar beliefs. In Great Britain the most well known, at least in hippie and college circles in those years was Ronald Laing who treated psychotic patients with little or no medicine, small patient units, and great amounts of time spent in individual and group therapies. Dr. Laing wrote a number of books over a span of almost 2 decades but his book, The Divided Self, is what put him on the map internationally. Almost every student in psychology in the colleges of those two decades of the 60’s and 70’s read this book. Laing came to be a highly sought after speaker at least on the slightly or very avantgarde college circuit. I myself heard him speak twice. Outside of a minority of devotees in international psychiatry, he was viewed as mostly a charismatic oddity and very much as a product of what was going on those days and years. The only fairly well regarded psychiatric researcher practitioner who practiced in an arena that could be regarded as in the camp of psychiatric treatment without medication was Sir Humphrey Osmond also of the same time period. He was more mainstream and a clinical researcher. His departure from the mainstream or whatever one wants to calls the ?silent majority? of psychiatrists was marked by his openly peer reviewed and published trials of hallucinogenics, mainly LSD in the treatment of psychiatric issues ranging from psychoses to the terminally ill. Most if not all his data was anecdotal, case reports of fantastic religious like euphoric life changing experiences of LSD for patients. The response to his work was underwhelming, to say the least in all fairness. In those times of the experimentation with LSD, DMT and the other designer hallucinogenics, many of us standard, perhaps stuffed shirt psychiatrists did not see these wonderful results. All I remember as a green medical student and then a green psychiatric resident was handling people in great psychiatric distress, having hours and hours of terrifying LSD induced experiences that were unnerving to witness and work with and for a while hard to treat. So the rest of us had a different view of the hallucinogenics. The use of ‘natural’ hallucinogens such as psilocybin in Native American cultures is different for the most part and I will not address that here as it is altogether different.
In spite of my huge built in bias and years of standard experiences in the current world of psychiatric treatment, I want to see what the Norway efforts and experimental treatment models can accomplish, what they evolve into, what factors they may be able to tease out since we no longer have too many sponsored or approved studies along these lines going on in the western world of medicine. I can predict that almost all “IRBs, “Institutional Review Boards” of clinical psychiatric research centers would almost never give approval to such work. More the pity as perhaps there are still interpersonal and talking therapy approaches that work better than others with standard inpatients and it might be possible to see those stand out in relief without medicines in some patients. I am more than willing to give the Norwegian effort a go at things and am personally glad that it is possible. I hope that it is studied “up one side and down the other,” that as much data as possible is gathered and presented to the world of treatment practitioners for all to review.
Lastly, I must comment on the other rare element contained in this article, all my own past bias coloring experiences aside.
This article goes to great and eloquent lengths to trace the history of various politico-social movements that have grown in Norway, and to at least comparable extent in the most of the other Scandinavian countries, of the right of what I would call a different form of self-choice, self-determination that almost has little or no parallel in our social views, spoken and unspoken mores and standards. The narrative of the author is marvelously woven drawing upon years of social thinking in Norway, exemplified by various social thinkers, commentators, critics, leaders of a number of “citizen advocacy” groups as I would term them. The author successfully brings the reader to a depth of historical feel and appreciation for how all this has developed in Norway so that even if you are not an instant convert, you can very much appreciate this psychiatric treatment model’s origins and roots. For this reason alone, this blog post is well worth the read.