People with SMI on the streetsImage by Geesling photography -SMI people on the streets of Phoenix

Linda Mimms initially shared this article via social media. This article is a brilliant take by Dr. Rob Laitman on what it costs our society monetarily and, more importantly, our humanity. Failure to appropriately treat people with mental illness disorders is caused by not meeting people’s treatable medical brain disorders, in addition to multiple other factors. We have been violating the CIVIL RIGHTS of this neglected group of sick citizens who have needed treatment for decades with disastrous results. The family and community burden is one of these many disastrous outcomes. These members’ lives with serious mental illnesses are often 25 years shorter than the rest of the population. Jails and prisons are treating (though inadequately) our sickest society’s members using our criminal system as an alternative to a therapeutic environment.  They have become a de facto significant psychiatric provider in this punitive setting. We continue to treat the behaviors of mental illness as criminal acts.

Charles Goldstein, MD

  “The more I look into the horror of our healthcare system, the more outraged I become. Let me give you some perspective as a nephrologist (kidney specialist). End-Stage Renal Disease (ESRD) is the only medical diagnosis that automatically qualifies you for Medicare. Currently, there are 468,000 ESRD patients in the USA. The average expenditure per patient per year is $150,000. The total cost is 70 billion dollars. Employment in ESRD patients is 20% employed to age 55 and less than 3 % thereafter. Now let us look at the psychotic spectrum disorders representing 2% of the population (1 % schizophrenia spectrum and 1 % bipolar with psychosis). This percentage represents 6,620,000 individuals. If we were to support their medical needs fairly and comparably, we would be willing to devote 1 trillion dollars just for their care.

   So what do we spend? When it comes to direct patient care for schizophrenia, the most recent estimate from a 2016 study was 37.4 billion. If you were to assume that the cost of taking care of someone with bipolar with psychosis was similar (actually, we know it is substantially less), the cost would be about 75 billion. Essentially we are only spending less than 1/10 for our patients with psychosis medical care than we have already decided would be appropriate in the ESRD population.

   What is even more outrageous is this lack of support leads to tremendous non-direct healthcare costs, including law enforcement, homeless shelters, and productivity losses of both the patients and the caregivers. Specifically, for schizophrenia, unemployment cost was 59.2 billion, and caregiving was 52.9 billion.

   What drives this tremendous disparity in resource allocation starts with the nihilistic belief that psychotic spectrum disorders are not treatable. Why should we devote resources to a hopeless population? Another component is that 50 % of this population has anosognosia, and therefore does not feel that they need treatment. Given the current status of the laws that “protect” patient’s rights, such as HIPAA and the underutilized and underpowered AOT laws, it is impossible to engage the patient even to start an effective treatment. Where we are right now is less than 50% of all patients with psychosis receive any care. The biggest psychiatric providers are the LA jail, Cook County jail, and Rikers Island jail. It is estimated that 20-40% of the prison population has a psychotic illness. The ever-growing homeless population also has been found to have a similar % of serious mental illness. At present, in those receiving treatment, only 14 % are in meaningful recovery.

   The question is, what are we doing wrong, or is this just a hopeless population? What does the evidence say? As it turns out, there is increasing evidence that early identification of prodromal high-risk individuals can be identified, and by working on their processing speed (REM) the development of the full-fledged psychotic disorder can be aborted. Even after the development of psychosis, early treatment with the most effective treatment and wrap-around social services can change the trajectory of the illness. This is being demonstrated impressively with the Recovery After Initial Schizophrenia Episode (RAISE) study.  Remarkably,  the VA has shown that if patients are switched to clozapine, there is a savings of over $ 20,000 accrue per patient-year initially, and as monitoring becomes less, that saving grows. Switching to clozapine has also led to the best survival, the lowest hospitalization rate, and the best quality of life.  In my hands, I have demonstrated what is possible with optimal clozapine care. 75/103 of my patients treated over six months are in meaningful recovery. I define meaningful recovery as being in school, work, or a PROS program training to work. Hospitalization and, therefore, the cost of care has been minimized. In over 330 patient-years of care, there have been only 1.3 years of hospitalization. This translates out on average 1-2 days/year in the hospital. Medical compliance has been over 90% in those that have been successfully engaged, and overall over 98% of the population considers themselves improved with my care.

   So we need to let our legislators know that they are not throwing good money after bad money. We need to have the resources to change the barriers to care. Specifically, we need a national uniform rational AOT program that gives the provider the ability to treat the patient where the need is demonstrated. Serious mental illness is a team sport, and communication has to be seamless, so we need to reform HIPAA to assure that caregivers are involved in every step of the way. We need to invest in improving access. Taking care of these patients takes a lot of work, and the reimbursement is dismal for the provider. So I return to the ESRD program. For every dialysis patient, the provider is paid a fixed amount for dialysis management. Clozapine is a lot of work and is superior to all other antipsychotics in every setting, and yet only 2% of the population is so treated. We need to invest in these patients and provide a treatment stipend for management. A reasonable fee schedule would be initially $1000/mo for the first six months, $750/mo for the next six months, and then $500/mo after one year. If the patient is hospitalized, the amount should be reduced proportionally to the time spent in the hospital. This is how the ESRD program works, and this carrot has led to superior clinical care. In our population, this small carrot could be a game-changer not only in the quality of care but the end of being a tremendous cost saver. With the cost-saving, we would then be able to devote more resources to all of the appropriate supports.

   In summary, we need to convince the powers that be to devote appropriate resources. We need bravery to insist on rational laws that help engage our patients and families in therapeutic relationships. Our medical professionals need to be re-educated in what is possible and learn the correct approach to treatment. We need to pay adequately for this arduous but rewarding work. If we do this, we will be able to provide an optimal clozapine based regimen with full wrap-around psycho-social services. With this, we will not only end suffering, but we will see a majority of this population lead lives of purpose and meaning.” Robert S. Laitman, MD

ACMI Board

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Photo by Michael Jin & Photo by Camilo Jimenez on Unsplash

Recently, when we were still permitted to congregate socially, I was at a Friday night service in my synagogue when a young woman in the back row emitted a frightening scream, fell, and began convulsing. During her seizure, she hurt herself by falling and hitting her head (danger to self) and broke a chair nearby when she fell on it (property damage). Of course, paramedics were called who attended to her and eventually transported her to a hospital, whereupon I lost contact with this particular young woman and her continued treatment. At no point were the police involved with this manifestation of symptoms of an otherwise presumably well-controlled person with epilepsy. Being an emergency physician myself, I can only tell you that my experience with people with seizure disorders being brought to the emergency room is that they are never subsequently taken to jail.  The options are either hospitalization or, more frequently, discharged home on appropriate medications with appropriate follow up.

 

In another hypothetical scenario, a “brittle diabetic,” usually well-controlled on his insulin, passes out while driving and knocks over a Postal box when he runs into it with his car (a federal crime!).  Police and paramedics show up; the patient is taken to an emergency room where it is ascertained that he indeed has diabetes and had become hypoglycemic. The patient is either admitted to the hospital or sent home on appropriate medications with appropriate follow-up.

 

In neither of these cases detailed above, were the patients assumed to be criminals.  People exhibiting symptoms from a chronic disease are treated appropriately for their symptoms. Their underlying illness and hospitalization, if needed, are not a problem; there are plenty of inpatient beds for them.

 

Let’s contrast this with what might have happened if this was a person with serious mental illness attending the same Sabbath service and became symptomatic, started flailing around, and did some property damage as this woman did. Police and/or paramedics would have been called. The patient may or may not have been taken to an emergency room and may or may not have gone to jail because society draws a fine line (not so fine) between apparent “medical” conditions and “psychiatric” conditions. Unfortunately, in a behavioral health crisis, when people become symptomatic because of their underlying disease, the behaviors related to their disease can suddenly be considered a crime. Also, if it was adjudged that this patient needed further treatment on an inpatient basis, they would have found this to be nearly impossible as there is an extremely limited number of inpatient psychiatric beds in the state of Arizona.

 

Currently, experts recommend approximately one psychiatric inpatient bed for every 250,000 people. In Maricopa County alone, there are about 4 1/2 million people; this equates to an inpatient psychiatric capacity that should exist of around 1,800 inpatient beds. At present, in Maricopa County, there are just 55 beds available in the public system for long-term psychiatric treatment. The inadequate number of limited long-term inpatient psychiatric beds is a figure so egregiously deficient that the reader might well be shocked that this is the truth; shamefully, it is.

 

We need to correct this appalling lack of inpatient psychiatric therapy currently available for the Seriously Mentally Ill.

Charles Goldstein, MD

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Photo courtesy of Isaac Geesling Photography 2018

With DJ Jaffe’s passing on August 23, 2020, individuals living with serious mental illness (and their loved ones) lost a highly effective advocate.  Some of us at ACMI, notably Deborah Geesling, lost a friend as well.  So, what do we do next?   How do we build on DJ’s work?

 

DJ knew first-hand what life is like for those living with serious mental illness and their families.   He took up advocacy to make those lives easier, safer, better. And his work instructed and inspired a generation of mental health advocates.   DJ’s messages — always delivered in clear, simple English — are notable for the absence of policy lingo and the gloss of politically correct phrases.  He spoke authentically, unassumingly, and he spoke truth.  With unparalleled, laser-like precision, DJ exposed shortcomings, and failures within the current “behavioral health” industry, a trendy nomenclature that DJ would remind us is a misnomer for what the seriously mentally ill need.  DJ was clever, quiet, studious, relentless.  And, of course, pony-tailed!   He never shied away from a powerful adversary.  No Goliath was too big for DJ.  And so, he left big footprints for those of us engaged in advocacy for the seriously mentally ill.  Perhaps DJ’s greatest attribute was his unparalleled ability to identify and “call out” practical policy failures that created and sustain our behemoth public mental health system.  And while DJ is now gone, we remain blessed by his writings and speeches — his practical, informed, insightful words of wisdom.

 

During DJ’s visit to Phoenix a few years back, he spoke at a church in the East Valley and at an ACMI salon.  The salon was held on a chilly evening beneath a spectacular Arizona sky.   Chuck and Laurie Goldstein’s patio, overlooking the Paradise Valley Desert and facing the spectacular mountains east of the Valley, is both beautiful and inspiring.  Add fireplaces, thoughtfully placed heaters, and blankets, and about 50 of us had a perfect setting for conversation and reflection.  Before DJ began his remarks, we chatted privately; I thanked him for his work, which was so needed.  His typically cogent response: “Well sadly it’s needed, but it really shouldn’t be.” Those words stay with me and remind me of the value of DJ’s concrete focus.

Photo courtesy of Isaac Geesling Photography 2018

Before meeting DJ, I had read the speech that he delivered to the 2012 NAMI New York State convention.  I keep it on my computer “desktop”.  My favorite part is this:

I am not a mental health advocate.   

Like most of you, I am a mental illness advocate.  I think we need less mental health spending and more mental illness spending.  It is the most seriously ill not the worried-well, who disproportionately become homeless, commit crime, become violent, get arrested incarcerated or hospitalized. 360,000 are behind bars and 200,000 homeless because we are now focused on improving mental health, rather than treating serious mental illness.

DJ Jaffe

NAMI/NYS convention 2012

As a tribute to DJ Jaffe, each week for the next year, ACMI’s website will feature a quote from DJ Jaffe. We are calling this, simply, “52 Weeks of Truth Telling From DJ Jaffe”.  By the anniversary of this remarkable’ s man’s passing, we’ll have quite a collection of words to live by .. a path of footprints, so to speak, to guide our advocacy and to honor this wonderful man.  RIP, DJ JAFFE.

Holly R. Gieszl, JD

Founding Member, Board of Directors, the Association for the Chronically Mentally Ill.

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