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Forcing Pills on Patients is Not the Answer

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Richard Dean Townsend -- a long-time client of the mental health system -- was shot four times by police in Corvallis, Oregon, USA, and died. This led to a call for more forced psychiatric drugging. Here a Corvallis reporter looks at the other side of the story, including by interviewing David Oaks, director of MindFreedom International.

Corvallis Gazette-Times, USA

December 4, 2005

By THERESA HOGUE

When David Oaks hears someone suggest that compulsory drug treatment is the solution to mental illness, it horrifies him.

Thirty years ago, while a student at Harvard, Oaks was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was locked up and forcibly injected with psychiatric drugs. The experience was so humiliating and frightening that when Oaks finally graduated, he dedicated himself as a human rights advocate, to ensure that others in the same situation would never be forced into medication.

Oaks is now director of MindFreedom International, a nonprofit organization that unites 100 different groups around the world in speaking out for human rights in mental health.

Speaking from his Eugene office, Oaks talked about the questions raised after the death of Richard Dean Townsend last week at the hands of Corvallis police officers. Townsend was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and allegedly came at police with a metal rod when he was shot four times. According to relatives, Townsend had not been taking his prescribed medication.

"It's just a horrible nightmare," Oaks said of Townsend's death, but he also viewed it as an opportunity to explore what's going wrong with the structure of support for people labeled with psychiatric disabilities. Too often, the quick solution is to blame medication, or the lack thereof, for the problem, he said.

"It's reduced to a bumper sticker approach of 'Keep them on their drugs.'"

Forcing people to take psychiatric drugs is actually a human rights violation, he said, and he disagrees that it provides any sort of solution.

"There's new evidence that the latest neuroleptic drugs are not necessarily any more effective than the older neuroleptic drugs, and they're tremendously more expensive," Oaks said.

And even more importantly, studies now show that long-term use of high-dosage neuroleptics causes the brain's frontal lobe to shrink.

While he supports an individual's right to choose to take medication, he said creating a range of humane alternatives including a network of peer support, counseling, and supported employment and housing opportunities is what's really needed to address the mental health crises being faced by many individuals.

Marie Parcell is on the board of directors of BEARS (Band of Empowered Advocates Reclaiming Self-Determination), a group that advocates for the welfare of mental health clients.

The group has looked to other communities as models for how Corvallis might respond to people in crises.

In Eugene, the White Bird Clinic offers a 24-hour crisis service center, as well as something known as the Cahoots Bus, a mobile crisis intervention unit that is called upon for non-criminal incidents. The responders get involved in crises, including intoxication, disorientation, substance abuse, mental illness problems and dispute resolution, according to its Web site.

Parcell said she liked the idea of trained responders intervening whenever possible to de-escalate a situation before law enforcement has to get involved.

"If in the middle of some kind of unusual stress, a police person is coming towards you, it isn't conducive to reducing that stress," Parcell said.

She also hopes that a community-wide meeting will be organized to discuss ways to address the current situation with new ideas.

"Some people are really angry, and others are pretty scared," she said.

Jody Parker, who is also involved in advocacy in Corvallis, said she's worried that the debate over medication is threatening to overshadow what really happened to Townsend.

"What's at stake here is what the police should do in this instance, and it's not a mental health issue. It's the question, 'Why was he shot four times?'" Parker said. "These are the things people should be asking. What strikes me most is that it has become a mental illness issue and not 'How will the police deal with people in the future?' Are they going to get training so they won't do this again? This is what the community should be discussing. Not whether or not he should have been on his meds."

Corvallis community advocate Steve Hoop has long been involved in promoting reform of the mental health care system and in fair treatment of mental health clients. After news of the death of Townsend, Hoop decided he wanted more information.

"Gary (Boldizsar, Corvallis police chief) needs to come forward with a town meeting and explain what the policy is regarding lethal force," Hoop said.

Hoop also would like to see the police department go through training that specifically addresses dealing with people diagnosed with mental illness.

"Someone who is traumatized isn't necessarily going to respond in the way (the police) expect them to respond," Hoop said.

Hoop said those in the mental health system are among the most marginalized groups in society, and advocates are few. Without the opportunity for employment or the ability to support themselves, many people spiral downward.

"This problem started 25 years ago," Hoop said. "There are needs in this community that haven't been met."


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Samantha Johnson, psychiatric survivor, MFI intern

Samantha Johnson is a 22-year-old psychiatric survivor who is interning at the MindFreedom International office. "I was absolutely in disbelief at how the people were treated at the hospital. It was an environment of emotional abuse interspersed with 'treatments' and 'policies' that could be more accurately described as assault. The tragic thing is that there really are some good people working there, but they are unable to provide people with the help they need inside a system that prioritizes profits over people. It might take five years of counseling for someone to truly recover from a mental health crisis, but it takes five minutes to tranquilize them. This is why I started working with MindFreedom. For 25 years MFI has been challenging the mental health system to see us as human beings- to treat us as human beings- through peaceful activism. At MFI we emphasize individual choice, empowerment, and compassion as necessary aspects of a true healing process."
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