NAMI's top advocate takes them all on
Meet E. Fuller Torrey, the heart and soul of the NAMI family movement and a world class advocate committed to eradicating schizophrenia,
Some call him flamboyant, dogmatic, shrill. He has always walked the straight and narrow in seeking recovery of severely mentally ill persons. He espouses the medical model of care and he will fight anyone, particularly the radical mental health consumers, who defies his belief that someone who can't live safely in society should be hospitalized or given priority for outpatient services.
That's his main calling as an advocate, I feel. As a researcher he can go into brains and he can claim there's a cat virus that may cause schizophrenia but from his political pulpit he mainly wants untreated mentally ill people taken legally into custody and not let loose on our streets. And he wants state laws changed to make this readily available.
Back in the 1950s his sister came down with schizophrenia as she was about to enter college. Dr. Torrey was aghast at the fake theories then prevalent about mental illness, inspired by the Freudians. He didn't believe that schizophrenia was a product of poor parenting nor that their mother was to blame. He never forgot his sister and has continued to visit her in Utica where she resides in a state hospital today. His sister's illness started him on a career in research into schizophrenia and on the way, he emerged as a leading advocate for the families of sufferers with mental illness.
Dr. Torrey is known as quiet and refined in private. But up front at the NAMI meetings he acts like a tiger (or wolf). I'm reminded of the times we saw Dr. Torrey in Washington and other cities. At one of these a few years ago we sat in a crowd of about 100 waiting for Fuller to appear. We all donned white tee shirts with a black wolf's emblem on the front. When he came down the aisle we howled and moaned like werewolves for a few delirious moments. He told us up front we have to fight harder, attack like wolves, if we're ever to change backward government policies toward the mentally ill. We greedily growled our applause.
Along the way there are a lot of other things he wants. He argues vehemently for a sufficient mix of community mental health services, including assertive community treatment, clubhouses, supported housing and supported employment, emphasizing illness and medication compliance throughout (see Wikipedia article on Torrey).
Many of us in NAMI follow the same lines, honor Fuller Torrey, but have learned something of his penchant for adoration and his snippiness toward dissenters. Despite a fruitful career, Fuller Torrey has a mixed reputation. Unless I'm mistaken, he's thought to be somewhat of a gadfly in the political arena.
In his time he's taken them all on, friend and foe:
--The NAMI crowd separated themselves from Fuller Torrey several years ago because of his reputation for disagreeing with others, particularly on the consumer issues. So he set up the Treatment Advocacy Coalition to take a harder line advocating changes in state laws that would force states to offer at least some limited form of involuntary hospital treatment (like our state's Kendra's Law). He called out NAMI leaders last year for backing the findings of a national study that supported some second generation medicines for schizophrenia, claiming they were reluctant to oppose drug companies who donated money amounting to more than half of NAMI's budget. He did accept an award from NAMI at the 2007 national conference.
--He has opponents among his old research colleagues who think he's all wet with his cat virus theory.
--He has urged Congress to put the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) back into the National Institutes of Health (NIH) which receive far more research dollars and have more political clout. And he's embarrassed top dogs at the NIMH, where Torrey worked, and Center for Mental Health Services (CMS), whom he charged with having a 1960s hippie mentality against medicine. He complains the CMS has wasted money on studies of pigeons' sex lives, for example, and paid for anti-psychiatry groups, while not focusing on severe mental illness.
--He thinks the states, not the federal government, should be where mental health policy is centered. But recently, and pointedly at NY State, he contends the Office of Mental Health has done too little and should be folded into the state Department of Health, which administers most of the spending anyway through Medicaid.
--A few years ago while on the board of directors of the prestigious Sheppard Pratt Hospital in Maryland, he is alleged to have prevented another researcher from joining the hospital staff because of their opposing views on the rights of mentally ill people to refuse treatment.
--Dr. Torrey is most furious about restrictive state laws, the result of federal court rulings in the 1970s and later, that prevent seriously mentally ill people from being admitted to hospitals or clinics for mental health treatment. These civil rights laws have sparked controversy around the nation and prompted Torrey to found the Treatment Advocacy Coalition about 10 years ago. TAC has advocated for states to pass assisted outpatient treatment laws, which give priority for someone acting out disruptively in the community to receive at least clinic treatment and medicines. In NY State this is known as Kendra's Law, passed in 2001 and a model for the rest of the states. Opposition still exists to these laws because they can legally force someone into treatment. When two mentally ill men were shot by police last year in NY City, Torrey penned an article in the NY Post headlined: “Deadly Madmen--Mental Health System Still Lets Them Roam.”
--He has harshly criticized state mental health officials for lack of community mental health services, including mental health courts and diversion from jail, police crisis intervention teams, drug courts, and shortages of housing and psychiatric beds available in emergencies. He blames today's epidemic of homelessness, violence and medication noncompliance among the mentally ill on the failures of governmental leadership. He finds that most of the violence occurs among those not in treatment.
--Torrey has also tilted over the years with the anti-psychiatry crowd including psychiatrists like Thomas Szasz, who think schizophrenia isn't a real illness, and with the neo-Freudians, whom he exposed in his book The Freudian Fraud.
The good doctor with the illustrious career is so thoroughly devoted to causes the families hold dearest, it's too bad we don't revere him more, instead of picking at his failings. (Roy Neville)