One size does not fit all

Editor of the Reformer:

Reading Heidi Henkel’s recent article on medications for mental illness ("There is an alternative to forced medication," Dec. 15) saddened me with its naivete and lack of more than a selective textbook understanding of the terrible pain some folks with mental illness experience. Opinions and a holistic philosophy of life and treatment are one thing, but recommending that stance to others is another. Ms. Henkel should volunteer on a locked unit at the Brattleboro Retreat to inform her opinion.

I am the mother of a 49-year-old man with very serious mental illness for 28 years now, and also have worked in in- and out-patient settings for 30 years myself as a clinician. As I write, my son is in jail awaiting a court hearing because he could not control himself and punched two of his friends. He has refused medication for years and has become both a threat to others and to himself, and he is totally unaware of it. Like Ms. Henkel, he believes medication is bad, and, of course, it is and can be. But what are his other options? He is not safe, and the people around him are also at risk. When he is medicated with Abilify, one of the more recent and very effective medications, no one would ever guess he has anything at all wrong with him. So, for the sake of a philosophical stance and a twisting of the scientific data, Ms. Henkel would join him in his choices based in psychosis. One size does not fit all in mental health treatment.

Claudette Hollenbeck,

Wilmington, Dec. 17

Outlandish and dangerous

Editor of the Reformer:

I would like to respond to Heidi Henkel’s highly sensationalist and irresponsible op-ed ("There is an alternative to forced medication," Dec. 16). While her piece somewhat focuses on the difficult ethics of involuntary psychiatric treatment, her claims about the long-term effects of psychopharmacologic drugs are simply false. She says, "People who take the drugs die an average of about 25 years younger than people who do not, mostly due to adverse effects of the drugs." What a brazen, frightening, and patently false thing to say. The closest supporting claim I can find regarding the alarmingly shortened lifespans of people enduring serious mental illness comes from the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, which states "Their increased morbidity and mortality are largely due to treatable medical conditions that are caused by modifiable risk factors such as smoking, obesity, substance abuse, and inadequate access to medical," not as dire effects of medical treatment.

It is possible to have a nuanced conversation about autonomy vs beneficence when discussing involuntary psychiatric treatment. And certainly, mental health treatment and service must be a part of whole-person approach to wellness. Ms. Henkel need not resort to scare-mongering. Psychiatry saves lives and her claims are as outlandish as they are dangerous.

Joëlle Montagnino

Brattleboro, Dec. 17

Look a little deeper

Editor of the Reformer:

Heidi Henkel’s column regarding people with a mental health diagnosis being forced to take medication ("There is an alternative to forced medication," Dec. 16) is not only naive but a disservice to your readers. I am a family member of people living with mental illness and am also a registered nurse with experience working in a locked psychiatric facility that treated people with an addiction as well as a psychiatric diagnosis. I can assure your readers that no one living with either condition wants to be out of control or worse yet, hurt themselves or others. Psychiatric practitioners (and families) want all people to be safe and treated with dignity and respect.

When any crisis occurs there needs to be an approach that keeps all the people at the table safe and the use of a therapeutic intervention coupled with medication (if needed) is the appropriate way to de-escalate a potentially life-threatening situation. Once an initial mental health crisis is assessed and properly managed then an appropriate plan of care can emerge with dignity and respect for all involved.

My recommendation to Ms. Henkel is to look beyond her limited experience and initial research and volunteer at any number of places in Vermont that hold people with mental issues with no treatment and no plan of care. Our police departments, shelters of all descriptions, schools and prisons are full of people in need of treatment and they do not understand that they need to ask for help in order to feel safe. I challenge Ms. Henkel to volunteer in earnest at the site of her choice that works with people with mental illness and their families. I will be surprised if after a year of listening and observing she comes to the same philosophical conclusions she endorsed in her op-ed.

As for your readers I encourage everyone to check out the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) Vermont to learn more about appropriate advocacy in our community for family and neighbors who care about treatment options for anyone that is living with a mental illness.

Jennifer Fitzgerald

Wilmington, Dec. 18