Franklin James Cook

Story Indicts Lack of Help for Co-Occurring Disorders

In Grief, Mental Illness on July 29, 2009 at 9:02 pm

In a remarkable story in the Washington Post, reporter Tom Jackman chronicles the life and death of Danny Watt, who “was a walking symbol of a phenomenon called co-occurring disorders, or dual diagnosis, which is estimated to affect 7 million adults in the United States.”

These people are both seriously mentally ill and abusing drugs or alcohol. About half of all adults who are seriously mentally ill are also thought to be addicted. The mental health community calls this “self-medication.” The federal government estimates that 90 percent of people with co-occurring disorders do not get the treatment they need.

Danny’s death shows how hard it can be to treat people with co-occurring disorders and why so many die young.

Danny died by suicide in April 2008 when he was 21 years old. Jackman’s in-depth report, which is “gleaned from his mental health records, extensive interviews with his family and Fairfax County mental health officials, and from [Danny’s] own notes,” describes in poignant detail his downward spiral and years and years of decisions that did not take into account the nature of Danny’s illness and of intervention after intervention that were, at best, unhelpful and, at worst, harmful to Danny.

In the end, the article is an unequivocal indictment of the mental health care system’s failure to adequately treat dual diagnosis patients.

E. Fuller Torrey, a psychiatrist with the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington and a prominent critic of the widespread deinstitutionalization of psychiatric patients, says forced treatment is essential when people are too mentally ill to realize they need help.

Saying that Danny had responsibility for his care is “fine for someone with substance abuse, but if you’re dealing with psychosis, then there’s no way you’re going to treat someone like that in an unlocked facility,” Torrey said. “What you’re looking at is the system is not set up to treat the difficult patients.”

Danny’s parents came to that belief repeatedly.

“It was always, ‘Get him stable, get him out,'” said Bobby Watt [Danny’s father]. “No long-term plans. . . . We wanted him in a place where he was locked up with proper medical attention until he became stable. I begged them to put him in a mental hospital. I told them, ‘If you put him out on the streets, he’ll be dead in a week.'”

That was April 3, 2008. Eleven days later, Danny was dead.

Jackman’s story is accompanied by an unforgettable video interview with Danny’s parents.

[The abridged URL for this post is http://tinyurl.com/LackOfHelp .]

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