By Debbie Plotnick, MSS MLSP
Dear E. Fuller Torrey and Doris Fuller:
Early Saturday morning, I saw the op-ed that you both authored which ran in the Wall Street Journal.
It pretty much was all I could think of over the weekend. At first I was very, very angry. This was because it hurt me personally, as a family member, as a mental health advocate, and as a social worker.
The subtitle and implications about those who are “high functioning” demeans people like my daughter and others whose now-present full lives include a painful history of suicide attempts, manic and psychotic episodes. It also demeans others who deal with the management of an ongoing mental health condition. There are so many individuals like this in and out of the mental health field. I work with many people who had all of the above; sometimes you'll know it, sometimes you won't. This term (high functioning), as well the tone of your op-ed comes across as downright dismissive and insulting to those that have dealt with a mental illness (all of which are serious) and to anyone who has ever beaten, or who lives with, a potentially life ending or altering condition.
It is also not helpful to personally attack administrators at SAMHSA and the Center for Mental Health Services (CMS) for not being psychiatrists. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) believes that the limited number of psychiatrists is best used as part of a team that includes primary care providers, social workers, and peers (people who’ve lived with a mental health condition). It is SAMHSA we have to thank for developing the evidence base for peers, who will play an increasingly important role in providing integrated, whole health care.
It is also not helpful to fuel the false belief that it is common for people with mental illness to be violent by repeating extrapolated, patently false, exaggerated murder statistics. This drives people away from seeking treatment, while perpetuating the public’s fear of people who are mentally ill.
As you, I have worked in this field for many years, and have worked with a variety of mental health professionals, as well as advocates and families throughout the country. While you didn’t list him by name, your piece references and criticizes the work of Paolo del Vecchio—who, like me, is a master’s level social worker with years of experience doing direct service for people with SMI. I know the programs he ran including outreach to some of the sickest folks in Philadelphia. And he, like me, has designed and run community support programs, and now works to bring that knowledge to scale. It is shared knowledge of these types of programs, and getting help to people early as well as late, where we have sometimes worked so hard to find found common ground. I would like to believe we are all in this field because we care about making the system—and the people that use it—better.
Rather than attacking each other, we need to do more to come together to really help people at every level of need to get services and supports that will help, especially when their illness is just starting. And of course, we need to be there for them when their needs are extreme. We can’t do either of those things if we are expending our energy trying to score political points or get editorials in newspapers. I invite you to join me in working with professionals of all types, and consumers and families to help the people we all care about.