New York’s Mayor: We’re out of Ideas, so It’s “Back to the Cuckoo’s Nest” for You!

In November 2022, Mayor Eric Adams of New York announced that even when the unhoused population poses no threat to others in the city, officials can sweep them up and deliver them to hospitals. New York City’s Civilian Complaint Review Board already receives hundreds of complaints against the police each year from individuals brought to hospitals against their will. The directive’s impact on civil liberties, particularly for already vulnerable unhoused people, promises to be even more dire. Who is behind this fiasco?

I ask this question as someone who has spent years investigating a little-known aspect of the history of psychiatry—the rise and fall of the homeopathic asylums and sanitariums. That history provides a portrait of the “insane”—or the “seriously mentally ill”—much at odds with the social picture today of unhoused people with schizophrenia who are assumed to universally be a threat to public safety.

Buffalo State Hospital. Photo by Shannon O’Toole on Flickr.

In the pre-psycho-pharm era, “mental illness” signified a loss of wherewithal in the face of life challenges. Rather than an inborn problem, insanity was a pitiable condition caused by a combination of factors such as exhaustion, inebriation, improper thinking, and bad habits. Given rest, decent nutrition, homeopathy, instruction in moral hygiene, engagement in fruitful activity, and a dose of humor (the nurses offered “giggle” classes), these could be dealt with. An asylum superintendent in Middletown New York noticed that watching baseball benefited sanity, so he created a powerhouse team to represent his hospital. On days when patients watched their asylum team’s games against other institutions or visiting major league squads, it was documented that the patients’ distress was markedly better.

A farce to be reckoned with

Getting back to the new plan for New York City: The doctor who, having gained Mayor Adams’s ear, promotes this regressive agenda garnering front-page attention is E. Fuller Torrey.

A psychiatrist obsessed with violence among the mentally ill, Torrey is dedicated to promoting involuntary hospitalization. The apparent reason for his crusade is that, once upon a time, psychoanalysis failed to cure his sister, Rhoda, of schizophrenia. He might have sought other horses to fly. After all, a multitude of theories, models, cultural vantage points and treatments other than psychoanalysis have their own perspectives on what we call schizophrenia.

With the 1984 publication of his book, Delusions, The Roots of Treason: Ezra Pound and the Secret of St. Elizabeth’s, the public was introduced to an E. Fuller Torrey having little in common with today’s version. A psychiatrist on staff at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., where the fascist poet Ezra Pound was held, Torrey joined forces with the renowned anti-psychiatrists of his day—Thomas Szasz, R.D. Laing, and Robert Coles—to oppose a view, held by the literary establishment and by his own psychiatric colleagues, that Pound was mentally ill.

O brave new world! Among those with whom Torrey butted heads was Winfred Overholser, a homeopathic physician and superintendent of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, DC, the most prestigious of the psychiatrists who declared Pound insane. A former president of the New England Society of Psychiatrists and the Massachusetts Psychiatric Society, Overholser, in 1947, became president of the American Psychiatric Association.

Torrey emerged from St. Elizabeth’s as the victor. Once popular, psychoanalysis was now on its way out. Having settled the hash of psychoanalysis, an updated edition of Torrey set about beating the drum for what, in his mind, remained head-shrinking’s sole rival: the notion that a biological basis for psychosis and schizophrenia exists—a notion promulgated by the psycho- pharmaceutical complex.

The nonexistence of such a link is convincingly shown by evidence drawn directly from psycho-pharmacological research. For having brought the information to light we have to thank Robert Whitaker, author of mad in America, and anatomy Of An Epidemic, as well as Eliot Valenstein, author of Blaming the brain. Granted, few look into this, but my own random samplings of the case histories of violent individuals more often than not implicate psycho-pharmacological medication as a primary factor. A hint of some of the many onerous “side effects” of psychiatric drugs shows that agitation, aggression, and delusional thinking are effects of the drugs, so this should come as no surprise.

Those with psychiatric diagnoses comprise a complex population in which the challenges of poverty, familial dysfunction, domestic abuse, social injustice, cognitive impairment, and racism overlap. They are far more likely to be the victims of violence than its perpetrators. For being tone deaf to the issues, over-simplifying and exaggerating mental illness’ relation to violence, Torrey is reviled by patient advocacy groups. He has also been called out for denying the connection between psychological trauma and mental disturbance. Because Torrey insists that the “mentally ill” are too dangerous not to be hospitalized, practitioners of conventional psychiatry devoted to outpatient treatment and deinstitutionalization disdain him as well.

In 1989, Torrey founded the Stanley Medical Research Institute (SMRI). There, searching for signs of the viral connection, Dr. Torrey insists causes schizophrenia, dozens of his researchers slice, dice and pore over the brains of deceased, mentally ill individuals. The largest brain bank in the world, SMRI did not always have the scraples to obtain permission from the newly deceased’s family prior to harvesting the brains of their late relative. Following its settlement with an aggrieved family, SMRI was compelled to desist from its ghoulish efforts to corner the market on brains. In doing so, the organization smugly asserted that, no matter, the Institute had by then already acquired sufficient cerebral tissue.

Torrey oversaw his sister’s psychiatric hospitalization during long stretches when she languished at Marcy State Hospital and Mohawk Valley Psychiatric Hospital. While there, despite not receiving any further psychoanalytic treatment, her schizophrenia stubbornly resisted cure.

Torrey, who has written 21 books and 200 papers, is lonized by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), a group that, despite heavy funding—at least in the past—from the pharmaceutical industry, promotes itself as a “grass roots.” organization.

Paging Nurse Ratched

Mayor Adams’ embrace of Torrey, and his concession that de-institutionalization for the mentally ill is a disaster, suggests that a return to the bad old days of psychiatric “cuckoo’s nests” beckons. Though New York City has 60,000 people living in shelters, it is the media’s focus on the unfortunate, rare violent street and subway encounters that is frightening New Yorkers. Feeling empowered to authorize sweeps of homeless encampments, Adams has deputized teams of clinicians and police officers to provide “outreach” to subway vagabonds. Mostly this is to offer services. The outreach’s actual intent, to move the emotionally disturbed somewhere out of sight, brings to mind a supposedly bygone practice: putting the unwelcome into carts and riding them out of town, the euphemism for which is “passing on.”

Especially when it’s involuntary, the process of being admitted to a hospital and remaining in a psych unit is traumatic. Already unstable patients must endure long waits in a chaotic emergency room environment. Upon admission, they must relinquish their clothes, phones, and other belongings. If disturbed by their sequestration, they are subdued with sedatives and/or physical restraints.

New York City has experienced a decrease in its number of psychiatric hospital beds over the years. Some 425 of the beds removed to make room for COVID-19 patients remain unavailable. A public health hospital in Harlem attributes increasing levels of patient violence to insufficient support staff. Mental health care staffing, patient capacity, and quality of care are in desperate need of an upgrade.

The short and long-term goals are reasonable: to stabilize people and then connect them with mental health care and support to meet such basic needs as housing. Since community programs have waiting lists, this is not always possible. As of November 2022, special outreach teams, known as assertive community treatment (ACT) teams, had an 800-person waiting list. The Jewish Board, a nonprofit that operates outpatient mental health clinics across the city, reports that there is currently a 1,500-person waitlist for a therapist.

A recourse hiding in plain sight

Though funding additional social workers, therapists, and housing for the oppressed will help, throwing money in the general direction of conventional psychiatry will only worsen matters, as it has always done in the past. Mayor Adams, Torrey, and others are convinced that something other than this losing proposition does not exist. They are mistaken.

Whether in acute or long-term settings, a viable recourse for the mentally ill is there for the taking. Through my research into the homeopathic asylums—a standard approach in history that is still relied upon by at least 300 million people the world over, and a mainstay of care throughout Europe, South America, and India—I have become convinced that the solution is hiding in plain sight. Despite relentless and baseless denigration by the pharmaceutical industry, powerful, safe, and cost-effective homeopathic treatment remains the answer.

For at least half a century, compassionate, safe, and effective homeopathic psychiatric hospitals proliferated in America. The care was provided in utopian, often self-sustaining, and popular settings, asylums of the post-Civil War and early nineteenth century eras. Our collective ignorance of their history of success stems from the psycho-pharmaceutical industry’s fear of disruption of its economic hegemony. To protect the bottom line, it has endeavored to and succeeded in eradicating almost all mention of it. It has filled the resulting vacuum with a fictitious narrative.

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

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