Opinion: Coercion and Institutionalization Won’t Fix NY’s Mental Health Crisis

April 2, 2022 (Reprint from NYAPRS ENews, and City Limits, Opinion Column by Harvey Rosenthal)

“We must reject policies that single out, scapegoat, and sweep away the rights of our neighbors with mental illness. “

Harvey Rosenthal

I spent six weeks in a psychiatric hospital on Long Island in 1970. I hadn’t slept or eaten in many days, had isolated myself for many more, and was increasingly suspicious of others. The medication and “therapy” groups there left me empty and gave me little reason for hope. I thought my life as I knew it was lost forever. Had I had the benefit of a peer counselor who had come through and out the other side of this traumatic event, I would have been offered a way forward.

After discharge, I retreated to my parents’ home, coming outside only to feed the ducks at a local pond and to catch the last movie showing at a local theater because I knew this was a way to be around people where no one would be looking at me.

Several years later, I went to work at the local state psychiatric center in Albany to try to give encouragement to people like me, who were essentially being told that their lives were over. I worked as a mental health service provider for the next 18 years and as a mental health advocate for the last 30.

I have seen New York’s mental health system at its worst and at its best.

I have seen us fail to provide the time and the will to find out how best to engage people in great need, only to place the blame on them and label them as “non-compliant”,

I’ve seen us give up on people because they wouldn’t accept medications without even trying to first address their most immediate needs, like food, shelter, and clothing. Now I’m seeing the state move to forcibly confine people in psychiatric wards because it hasn’t sufficiently invested in street-based approaches that help them to accept those same things voluntarily.

I’ve seen people and politicians complain about and decry the “homeless mentally ill” and then fail to provide the specialized housing and supports necessary for people to voluntarily leave the streets and subways for help that they can trust, even as we have 2,500 empty supported housing units in New York City.

I’ve seen us fail time after time to skillfully engage and effectively support BIPOC individuals with serious mental illnesses voluntarily: why else are nearly 4 out of 5 Kendra’s Law coercive treatment orders applied to Black and Brown people in New York City?

I’ve seen the sharp rise in public fears about the “violent mentally ill” even as the data is clear that the people I support are 11 times more likely to be victims of violence, five times more likely to be victims of murder are 16 times more likely to be killed in encounters with police.

We must reject policies that single out, scapegoat, and sweep away the rights of our neighbors with mental illness.

And it’s long past time for our mental health systems to take charge here and to stop foisting off our responsibilities to the criminal justice and homeless systems.

But I’m also seeing extraordinarily promising successes.

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