Saturday, December 31, 2022

The Rights Versus Treatment Debate


Just yesterday I coauthored a brief opinion piece on the issue of civil commitment and the issue of rights versus treatment (2). My co-author Mark L. Ruffalo had the great idea to initiate our commentary based on a letter from the late Darold A. Treffert, MD who was then the Superintendent of Winnebago State Hospital in Wisconsin. Dr. Treffert was also an expert on autism and savant syndrome.  I heard him speak on that topic about 15 years ago at the Door County Summer Institute.  His letter (2) was both a statement about the need for legal intervention and a call to action. In the final line, he attempted to solicit negative experiences from other physicians about a civil commitment process that erred on the side of rights rather than recognition of severe problems and treatment and the resulting problems.

Historically this letter came around the time that antipsychiatry forces were building and one of their main talking points was that there was no such thing as a mental illness.  People simply had “problems in living” and therefore no medical or legal intervention was necessary.  Certainly not a legal intervention that resulted in the deprivation of civil liberty.  The antipsychiatrists and liberty advocates failed to recognize the problem of severe mental illness and the associated lack of problem recognition and impaired decision making.  Those impairments greatly compromise any person’s ability to negotiate the world safely and take care of their self. The usual examples include suicidal or aggressive thoughts and behavior.  They can also extend to routine medical care and activities of daily living.  As an example – a person with severe mental illness may no longer see the need to take insulin for diabetes, or blood pressure medications, or anticonvulsants. That can precipitate a medical emergency in addition to any existing psychiatric emergency.

In Dr. Treffert’s letter, he mentions that the Wisconsin Supreme Court set a new commitment standard of “extreme likelihood that if the person is not confined he will do immediate harm to himself or others.”  Imminent likelihood became an impossible standard in many cases. Even if a patient had attempted suicide or assaulted someone, at any point during a one or two week court process – they could make the argument that the imminent danger had resolved – even if they were refusing treatment and continued to have severely impaired judgment. In that case what frequently happened was that courts experimented with rapid dismissals of commitment petitions – until there is a catastrophic outcome.  At that point they become as cautious as the physicians involved in assessing and treating the patient.

The dangerousness standard for commitment has additional unintended consequences. It functions as a de facto hospitalization standard. It is common that managed care companies deny payment for admissions or even continued stays in the hospital based on the imminent danger statute even in patients being treated on a voluntary basis. The applicable standard in this case should be an adequate treatment standard – also a quality standard.  It is highly likely that any patient admitted after a suicide attempt or episode of severe aggression will continue to have that problem if they are discharged without adequate treatment. Adequate psychiatric treatment generally takes much longer than typical 2-to-3-day crisis hospitalizations. As a de facto standard in the managed care era, it is also easy to discharge a patient who is uncooperative with care by documenting the resolution of the imminent crisis and discharging them rather than working on relationship building and a plan based on a therapeutic alliance. The adversarial legal standard becomes an adversarial medical process. 

Imminent danger standards also fail to recognize forensic populations, the subgroup of people with severe mental illness who have a pattern of violent crimes and have a chronic risk of violent and aggressive behavior. This group of patients often cannot be treated in the same setting as other patients with severe mental illness, and require treatment in forensic settings with adequate staffing and protections for both patients and staff. That segregation can also occur at the community hospital level, where just a few hospitals have psychiatric units and fewer have units that are designed to contain aggressive behavior. Aggression and violence in psychiatric settings is so stigmatized that its existence is commonly denied unless someone is trying to make a political argument that involves blaming societal violence on psychiatric patients.  Even then there are counterarguments that it does not exist. I have been advocating the position that violence and aggression secondary to mental illness are public health problems that should be addressed at that level for at least 20 years.  During that time, I have not seen a single public service announcement with that message.  Instead, the political and legal system continues to ignore that approach by flooding the country with firearms, closing many if not most community mental health centers, closing supported housing, and failing to provide affordable housing.

The response from journalists is not much better – ranging from overt misinformation about psychiatry and mental illness to the occasional human-interest story. The people who know the most about the problem – psychiatrists, social workers, and case managers are left out of the loop in favor of the most convenient critic. Journalists seem unaware of conflict of interest of many of their recruited experts and do not apply the same standard that they would for a psychiatrist.  Journalists and politicians also promote widespread cannabis use and in some cases legalization of many drugs that all pose serious health risks to psychiatric populations.  It is as if saying that out loud is bad for business and tax revenues.  

The humane aspects of involuntary treatment are often turned on their head in the rights versus treatment debate.  Is it more humane to keep persons with mental illness circulating between short term hospital with minimal to no treatment, jails, and homelessness because they do not recognize the problems they are having and fail to come up with solutions, or is it more humane to offer involuntary treatment?  Context is very important.  In my experience, during involuntary treatment – therapeutic alliances occur as it becomes evident that the treatment providers are helping the patient survive better. People with impaired insight and judgment require evidence that they are being helped and that is generally a turning point in the process. If a person is homeless, the evidence has to be provided right where they are – on the street.  That requires active outreach by treatment teams. Ideally that can happen before any crisis occurs that may lead to civil commitment and involuntary treatment. But even if the patient is committed active intervention to support them outside of institutional settings is possible.  This method of community psychiatry and community support has been around since it was invented by Len Stein, MD and Mary Ann Test, MSW in the 1970s. I was fortunate enough to have been supervised by Dr. Stein during residency and one of the key concepts was “the money has to follow the patient.”  In other words, the money used to finance extended state hospital stays had to be used to treat people in the community and provide them with their own housing.  This was a model to maintain people disabled by severe mental illnesses in their own housing.  The other elements included active outreach and 24/7 availability of staff to help them resolve any crises. That basic model has been around for 50 years and it is rarely implemented and only recently discussed in mainstream medical journals.

The primary reason we have a problem with both homelessness and untreated chronic mental illness in the United States is economic. The managed care model of health care administration showed how easy it was to deny and ration psychiatric care to make money.  That model was sold based on increased efficiency and cost containment – but at this point it is obvious that it does neither. It does reroute funds to pay for a massive increase in the number of administrators at both the private and public levels.  These administrators are largely focused on enforcing the rationing of care instead of providing quality care. In fact, the real onset of managed care heralded the total disappearance of quality metrics in medical care. Quality was no longer monitored by external agencies.  It was internalized in managed care organizations. The focus went from adequate treatment of a problem to how quickly a person could be discharged to maintain profitability under an unrealistic reimbursement system.  That approach is a disaster for acute care psychiatry, community psychiatry, and it makes involuntary treatment more likely from the resulting chronicity. It has also been a major frustration for outpatient psychiatrists trying to get hospital access for their patients in crisis. But the economics are generally swept under the rug or discussed at a superficial level by the critics.

At the community level, rather than active outreach by trained mental health staff most communities end up using law enforcement or other first responders with minimal to no mental health training. In most communities they are the only staff available on a 24/7 basis and that is also a funding issue. There are situations where the police do need to be involved in a mental health crisis, but that is far less common than the need for mental health intervention.

What are the solutions? I have written about many on this blog over the years. At the top of my lost today is just moving past the rights versus treatment debate. It has been a stalemate for 50 years while the entire system of care has collapsed due to rationing. The rights have been adequately safeguarded for decades and arguments about abuses before that time are irrelevant. What do I mean about adequate safeguards? In the state where I worked, there was a prepetition screener, a prepetition screening team (to discuss the merits of commitment and whether the patient met statutory requirements), 2 court appointed examiners, a defense attorney, a country attorney, a probate court judge, and if necessary, a substance use assessor.  That is about 7-10 people independent of the treating staff and any one of who could disagree with the commitment process.  I am not aware of any legal process that provides more safeguards.

On the treatment side, there is a legal concept called least restrictive treatment. That simply means a treatment setting where the person is free to come and go as they please rather than being in a facility where they either can’t leave or have to ask for permission.  The goal of the Stein and Test model was to maintain people in their own apartment – the least restrictive of all. That is a goal that any functional system should aspire to.  When we hear about the homeless problem only a fraction of those folks have severe mental illnesses.  Another fraction has substance abuse problems. The obvious solution is a housing first option that may include social support or in the case of mental illness case management services with active community psychiatry outreach.  The first step is not transport to emergency departments and admission to psychiatric units.   

Another unmentioned dimension on the treatment side is well trained and motivated staff.  Police officers do not choose a career in law enforcement because they are interested in communicating with and treating people with severe mental illnesses. Mental health staff do.  Communication and relationship building goes a long way toward defusing a crisis and preventing involuntary treatment.

Addressing the dilapidated psychiatric infrastructure is the final step. The issue of psychiatric beds is a chronic problem with the ongoing political rhetoric that no more are needed compared with needs analyses based on bringing the length of stay (LOS) of psychiatric patients in the emergency department to the same LOS as medical and surgical patients. On that basis – there are very few places in the US with adequate psychiatric beds.

By far – the single most detrimental factor has been the managed care model of rationing in health care systems and by the states. Denying care will always be more cost effective than providing care.  It is also a good model for generating profits. Much of that early profit was made by shifting the cost of effective care for serious mental illnesses away from subscriber-based health care systems to state funded systems – at least until the states adopted the model for themselves. Any serious discussion of the rights versus treatment debate needs to start at that point. Involuntary treatment and civil commitment will never be a solution to the problem of homelessness or the revolving door of people with severe mental illnesses getting inadequate treatment.

I wish that I could end the year on a more positive note but things seem very grim out there. We are still in the midst of a pandemic that has showcased how susceptible the public is to misinformation and political manipulation.  I can't help thinking that this has been the state of affairs in psychiatry for the past 50 years and this post is some of that evidence.  I am hoping that we can see the rise of some leaders in psychiatry to counter these trends - just as we have seen experts in virology and engineering counter the coronavirus misinformation.  But it seems like it will take a lot more than that.

Here is hoping for a better year in 2023 and beyond!


George Dawson, MD, DFAPA



1:  Ruffalo ML, Dawson G.  Still Dying With Their Rights On, 50 Years Later.  Psychology Today December 30, 2022 Link

2:  Treffert DA. "Dying with their rights on". Am J Psychiatry. 1973 Sep;130(9):1041. doi: 10.1176/ajp.130.9.1041. PMID: 4727765.

Photo Credit:

Eduardo Colon, MD with thanks.

Additional Posts Relevant To This Topic:

 1:  The Problem With Inpatient Units:  Link

 2:   Are There Any Good Jobs Left for Psychiatrists?  Link

 3:  The Bureaucratic Takeover of American Psychiatry: Link

 4:  There Is No Identity Crisis In Psychiatry  Link

 5:  Holding Tank or Psychiatric Unit?  Link

 6:  Medical Care of the Seriously Mentally Ill - The Way It Should Be Provided Link

 7:  Governments and Psychiatric Beds  Link

 8:  The New York Times Steers The Mental Health Conversation in the Wrong Direction  Link

 9:  Bedless Psychiatry and  Recipe for Remaining Bedless  Link

10:  The New York Times Article on Why Mental Health Can't Stop Mass Shooters  Link

11:  My Opinion on Community Mental Health from 1989  Link

12:  Minnesota's Abandonment of the Severely Mentally Ill - Nearly Complete  Link

13:  Treatment setting Mismatches - The Implications  Link

14:  Why There Are No Bipartisan Solutions to Exorbitant Health Care Costs in the USA  Link

15:  A Circular Ethical Argument About Psychiatric Services  Link

16:  The EMTALA Paradox  Link  June 11, 2017

17:  Managed for Mediocrity - Corporate Medicine in the 21st Century  Link

18:  Remission Before Discharge?  An Un-American Concept  Link

19:  Do Businessmen Dream of Medicine Without Doctors?  Link

20:  Americans Can't Do Basic Health Care Arithmetic  Link

21:  The Largest Psychiatric Hospitals in the USA Link

22:  Hospitalists...  Link

23:  A Better Analysis of the Psychiatrist "Shortage"  Link

24:  Just When You Thought American Healthcare Could Not Get Any Worse  Link

25:  Newsflash from the StarTribune - Psychiatric Patients Have Nowhere to Go  Link

26:  Medicine to Psychiatry to Parking Lot:  The Evolution of Detox Over the Past 30 years  Link

27:  Admission, Discharge, and Readmission Policies: No Better Example of Business Driven Pseudoscience  Link

28:  How To Ruin You Life Without Being Dangerous  Link

29:  How the Ruling Class Impacts Your Health Care and Why They Need to be Stopped  Link

30:  Trauma In Psychiatric Hospitalizations  Link

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

What drugs should psychiatrists prescribe?


That was a question posed by a recent paper in Academic Psychiatry (1).  The focus was on psychopharmacology agents from the perspective of older agents like lithium, monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), and tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs).  Every few years, the debate about these drugs is rekindled – almost like the stereotypical old man shouting: “Hey you kids – get off my lawn.”   Should psychiatrists know how to prescribe older agents – of course they should. First off, the age of the agent has nothing to do with efficacy. Lithium is the best example there and it continues to have the best efficacy for bipolar disorder relative to new agents.  TCAs and MAOIs have comparable efficacy to newer antidepressants like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) but given the span of clinical trials – a strict comparison is not possible. Some authors do make unequivocal statements about both TCAs and MAOIs having superior efficacy to SSRIs. But in my opinion meta-analyses does not eliminate the differences in clinical trials technology over the past 50 years.

The authors make some of these arguments and suggest a number of biases that may be operating against prescribing these medications. Some of those biases originate in risk perception. In general, newer medications do tend to be safer.  They are certainly not without risk.  Serotonin syndrome and neuroleptic malignant syndrome are the typical rare but high-risk complications of prescribing psychiatric medications but there are many more. The rational discussion of risk involves knowing the pharmacology, knowing any risk mitigation strategies, knowing to what extent your patient can co-manage that risk with you, and the explicit informed consent discussion outlining the risks.

In my experience about 15-20% of outpatients do not tolerate modern antidepressants well at all. I have always encouraged people in that situation to try something different. TCAs and MAOIs are certainly not devoid of side effects but it is possible to change to one of those medications and the patient notices immediately that the drug is well tolerated and eventually effective.  Clinical trial data will show that as a group SSRIs are safer and better tolerated than either TCAs or MAOIs but in the clinic we are treating individuals and not groups.  On an individual basis, people are selected based on whether they tolerate a class of medications or not and that does not mean that they will not tolerate all medications.  With lithium, MAOIs, and TCAs – the informed consent discussion needs to include the potential toxicities with reassurances that the goal is to avoid side effects and complications. 

That has been my approach to psychopharmacology for 35 years. It was easier for me to have this perspective because when I started out back in 1986, the only antidepressants available were TCAs and MAOIs. I also trained with two psychiatrists, James Jefferson and John Greist who wrote the Lithium Encyclopedia and ran the Lithium Information Center.  In the days prior to the internet, it was a repository of all known hard copy references to lithium in the medical literature. There were additional formative experiences, most notable 22 years on acute care units where you are the person responsible for the total medical and psychiatric care of the patient. It was common to see patients on multiple psychiatric and nonpsychiatric medications with varying levels of adherence and instability. In some cases, they were accompanied by several shopping bags of medications and it was impossible to determine what medication was being taken and what was not. In many cases the medical providers and the psychiatric providers had never communicated and there was redundancy and drug interactions. My job in that situation was to make the best estimate of what medications could be safely started and to follow the patient closely so that they could be adjusted. That requires a good knowledge of medications that are used to treat endocrine/metabolic conditions, infectious diseases, rheumatic disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, cardiac conditions, dermatology conditions, chronic pain and neurological conditions.

In other words, most medications that are commonly used. And why wouldn’t psychiatrists prescribe everything both inside and outside of the specialty?  I have been fortunate enough to work with many Internal Medicine specialists and subspecialists. I have witnessed what happens when they encounter a medication that they do not routinely prescribe. They ask the patient about why it was prescribed and their experience with it.  They read the package insert and decide whether to prescribe it or not.  The idea that each specialty has limited knowledge about prescribing medications outside of that specialty seems like an erroneous assumption to me.  It is even clearer now that we have nonphysician prescribers with less basic science and pharmacology knowledge and less supervised prescribing training not restricted to any set group of medications. Physicians have been trained in all classes of pharmacology and should have worked out a general approach on how to safely prescribe any medication encountered.  Physicians also need to know about the range of medications in the population they are working with.  Adapting to the medications utilized by different populations is all part of the practice of medicine.  Today and in the future it is conceivable that a typical psychiatrist may cycle through 4 or 5 different practice scenarios, each one requiring unique a unique knowledge of pharmacology.

That does not mean that I am going to start diagnosing and treating arrhythmias like a cardiologist.  But it does mean that if I get a patient admitted to my inpatient service who is taking an antiarrhythmic that I should be able to decide to continue or restart it, what monitoring needs to be done, whether an ECG needs to be ordered, whether to get a Cardiology consultation or contact the patient’s cardiologist (stat or electively), and whether any medication I want to start or change will affect either the antiarrhythmic or the patient’s underlying cardiac condition. The same process is true for every medication on their list.

The typical argument I encounter with that suggestion is: “Well most psychiatrists don’t practice in that kind of intense medical environment.”  My answer is – open your eyes. It is not enough to look at a typical list of medications in an electronic health record (EHR) and focus only on the ones that psychiatrists should prescribe.  It is not enough to assume that your patient’s list of medical problems is being adequately addressed.  Psychiatry from my perspective still means that the psychiatrist has some responsibility for the total medical care of the patient. In today’s fragmented medical care environment, the psychiatrist may be the only physician the patient is seeing. When asked who their doctor is – many people will name their psychiatrist.

That opinion is bound to make some psychiatrists nervous. They may have the thought; “How can I provide that level of care when I am being reimbursed less and have to spend most of my time doing clerical work for the EHR?” That is a fair question and one without an obvious answer. If administrators were really interested in quality care, they would give primary care physicians and psychiatrists enough time for that level of analysis. Psychiatrists need more time to establish and attend to their relationship with the patient.  But the medical stability of the patient and assuring that they are not experiencing adverse effects and that treatment is effective is an absolute priority. 

Psychiatrists need to be trained to make these assessments and they need to be able to prescribe and modify a significant pharmacopeia extending well beyond what exists in a psychopharmacology text. That skill is predicated on the extensive content in basic science and clinical literature on pharmacology and also the process of learning about new drugs and how to safely prescribe them. That learning process is largely implicit and not discussed enough.  If it was, it could be applied to older medications as well.    


George Dawson, MD, DFAPA



I need to add a comment to this post because a lot of practice settings are designed to support specific prescription practices.  For example, there are a lot of private practices that focus primarily on the treatment of anxiety and depression.  There is also the assumption that more complicated pharmacotherapy such as the prescription of lithium needs referral out to a psychopharmacologist. In other cases, clinics will specialize in prescribing that fits specific diagnoses rather than the universe of psychiatric disorders.  Those practices stand in contrast to patients who are unable to get adequate medical or psychiatric care and routinely have their prescriptions disrupted. 

When that does happen they can end up in between prescriptions, self rationing prescriptions, or just not taking any prescribed medication for a while. Depending on the underlying medications, that alone can precipitate a crisis that any psychiatrist or trainee should be able to recognize and address. 

The first place that kind of training occurs is during the admission and coverage of inpatient units. The first orientation to these units should be a discussion of the expectations for prescribing to inpatients in acute care settings. It is not a question of waiting for a physician to sort things out the next day or hoping that a medical consultant will see the patient and make the necessary changes.  Each physician and trainee in that setting needs to know how to make acute assessments, determine the need for medications, and either make those changes or figure out how to get help on an acute basis.  Recognizing the urgency of situations like prescribing insulin for diabetes mellitus is as important as knowing the pharmacology.  Nobody should leave trainees guessing on their first call night.


1:  Balon R, Morreale MK, Aggarwal R, Coverdale J, Beresin EV, Louie AK, Guerrero APS, Brenner AM. Responding to the Shrinking Scope of Psychiatrists' Prescribing Practices. Acad Psychiatry. 2022 Dec;46(6):679-682. doi: 10.1007/s40596-022-01705-1. PMID: 36123516.

Photo Credit:

Eduardo Colon, MD. - many thanks.