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Advocates at odds over mentally ill


By FRED CONTRADA Staff writer

NORTHAMPTON - They are both working on behalf of the mentally ill, but the differences that separate two advocacy groups point to a larger question with nationwide repercussions.

Is drug treatment the best option for mental illness?

The Freedom Center thinks not, while the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill cites research showing that many illnesses are biologically based and respond best to drug treatment.

The divide between the groups widened this week when the Freedom Center called on an alliance official to resign after she said she knows of people involved with the Freedom Center and other groups who have harmed themselves - including committing suicide - after halting their medication.

"The information regarding suicide is totally not true," said Wilton E. Hall, one of the group's founders. "It's a fabrication."

Jane E. Moser, president of the alliance's Western Massachusetts chapter, said she never intended to specify the Freedom Center when she spoke with reporter Patricia Norris about the dangers of withdrawal from drugs for a Nov. 23 story.

"What I was talking about is that our concern that untreated mental illness resulting in suicide is a huge problem in our society," she said.

Moser's own paranoid schizophrenic son was jailed for attacking his parents and refused to take his medication until he was ordered to do so following an attack on another man after his release. Moser said Tuesday she does not know of any specific individual associated with the Freedom Center who committed suicide and only has anecdotal information about people who killed themselves after halting medication.

The issue arose as the Freedom Center campaigned on behalf of James Bower of Easthampton, a 25-year-old client of ServiceNet Inc. who is under a court order to take medication for schizophrenia and depression. A so-called "Rogers Order" is imposed when a judge decides that someone would be a danger to himself or others without the help of drugs.

Bower told The Republican that police and an ambulance have sometimes been summoned to the Easthampton half-way house where he resides when he refuses his medications. He is then taken to Cooley Dickinson Hospital where the drugs are sometimes forcefully administered, he said.

Easthampton police say they have taken Bower to court on a summons but could not confirm that they had escorted him to the hospital. Bower said he was put into a psychiatric facility at the age of 16 after hitting his brother with a lacrosse stick. He maintained that he is not mentally ill and has been misdiagnosed.

Although Susan Stubbs, director of ServiceNet, said she could not comment on individual cases because of client confidentiality, she said it is rare that a court-appointed guardian is asked to make decisions about a person's medication. Of 1,700 people in ServiceNet's care, she said, only 15 are under a Rogers Order.

Moser is not the only alliance member drawn into the fray.

Earlier this month, Janice White, the vice president of the local Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Western Massachusetts, wrote a letter to Mount Holyoke College psychology professor Gail A. Hornstein blasting a film series called "Experiencing Madness" that Hornstein had organized. In the letter, which was provided to The Republican by Hornstein, White argued that the series downplays the biological aspects of mental illness.

"Serious mental illnesses are not romantic psychic episodes, spiritual crises, or part of an alternative life style, nor are they a result of homophobia, racism, or sexism," White wrote. "It is very sad to think that a Department of Psychology and Education at such a prestigious college as Mount Holyoke would engage in such dangerous propaganda!"

Hornstein, who teaches a course on madness, said she was "absolutely astonished to receive a letter attacking me." She questioned whether White attended any of the films and said that no one from the alliance participated in the discussions that were part of the series.

"This is part of a pattern by (the alliance) to make strong and sweeping allegations without any corroboration," she said.

White could not be reached Tuesday for comment , but Moser said that denying the biological causes of mental illness flies in the face of accepted research.

"Where we are coming from is that we accept the scientific findings in the last couple of decades that fully and without dispute are telling us that these are brain disorders," she said. "The people who are going against science are not in the majority."

Hall, who has been off medication for a decade after being diagnosed with schizophrenia, said mental health consumers are hungry for alternative treatments and blames groups like the alliance for standing in their way. He also says the Freedom Center is not absolutely opposed to medication and never recommends that patients go "cold turkey."

"Going off medication abruptly can be damaging," he said.

Hall also accused the alliance of lobbying to cut funding for consumer initiatives in Massachusetts. State Rep. Ellen Story, D-Amherst, said she sponsored a budget amendment to eliminate Department of Mental Health funding for such groups after talking with constituents who had concerns about their philosophical positions.

The alliance never lobbied for the cuts as an organization, however, Story said. She added that she hoped the amendment would spark discussion of the issues and lead to better oversight of consumer groups. Although the measure failed to pass, the Legislature did cut some of the funding.

Dr. Benjamin Liptzin, who heads the psychiatry department at Baystate Health Systems, said mental illness is the leading cause of more than 30,000 known suicides in the U.S. each year. Although he believes drugs are often beneficial, Liptzin said there are often environmental and personal factors that can be treated by other methods.

"They're both right," Liptzin said of the opposing groups. "Instead of fighting with each other, we should be encouraging people to get help."

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