I haven’t posted since hearing about Wayne Fenton MD, the famous NIMH psychiatrist who was beaten to death by a patient last Monday. He was by reputation devoted, caring, and committed to his patients. He also argued persuasively against discrimination and stigmatization of the mentally ill as dangerous beings.
Wayne S. Fenton, 53, a National Institute of Mental Health administrator who as an expert on schizophrenia devoted himself to making life better for those with severe mental illnesses, was found dead Sept. 3 in his office in north Bethesda. Montgomery County police have charged a 19-year-old patient he had seen that day.
Dr. Fenton built a reputation as an accomplished clinician, researcher, administrator and practitioner who often tackled the most difficult cases. A fiercely committed and patient professional, he combined his skills to benefit a segment of the mental-health population that he felt did not always get the necessary care.
His goal was singular and unselfish, his colleagues said: He wanted to help people with schizophrenia become functioning members of society.
In a 2002 article in The Washington Post, Dr. Fenton lamented the lack of appropriate care for those with schizophrenia. “All one has to do is walk through a downtown area to appreciate that the availability of adequate treatment for patients with schizophrenia and other mental illnesses is a serious problem in this country.
“We wouldn’t let our 80-year-old mother with Alzheimer’s live on a grate,” he said. “Why is it all right for a 30-year-old daughter with schizophrenia?”
Dr. Fenton, a research psychiatrist, had a private practice on Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda, where he saw patients in the evenings and on the weekends. He had been at NIMH, a part of the National Institutes of Health, since 1999, where he supervised the development of diagnostic instruments and interventions for mental illnesses with an emphasis on such severe disorders as schizophrenia. The disease affects about 2 1/2 million Americans.
He had a “profound dedication” to people with severe mental illness, said Dr. Steven E. Hyman, provost of Harvard University and professor of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School. “He saw them as the underserved in our society, as very vulnerable,” said Hyman, a former director at NIMH who recruited Dr. Fenton there. “In a very determined, smart and effective way, he did everything he could to improve their lives.”
David Oaks at Mind Freedom issued a press release:
“…We in the mental health advocacy community ask that groups lobbying
for more forced psychiatric drugging do not politically exploit this horrible tragedy to stereotype those of us with psychiatric diagnoses as inherently violent. Our MindFreedom members are living examples of the scientific fact that the overwhelming majority of people with
psychiatric diagnoses, including schizophrenia, are peaceful and
contributing members of society…”
The Treatment Advocay Center has their new poster-boy in Dr. Fenton, and Philip Dawdy at Furious Seasons is all over it. If not for his even-handed, angry and sensitive commentary I’d run away from the whole horrifying, triggering and incomprehensible event. Maybe I am not a psych rights advocate, after all, I don’t know and I don’t care, I just can’t get this poor man out of my head. How do you beat someone to death with your bare hands? Oh I know, pick me, I know! I once loved and looked up to a man who did this. He wasn’t mentally ill, he was my sociology professor. He called one night drunk and crying and told me he beat a man to death 30 years ago. I said I don’t believe in monsters. It’s a good thing you’re suffering. We never spoke again.
My intent with starting Writhe Safely was to dig into policy, legislation, media, civil liberties, Big Pharma, involuntary treatment, the partisan war over aeitology, the current love affair with the genetic theory of mental illness and inevitable social darwinism it promotes. I’d argue rationally for the discredited trauma model, and argue these politics as politics.
I just read Politics For Dummies, it said maybe some people think they can afford to ignore politics, but politics will continue to affect their daily life in ways they can’t understand or control. Like it or not, you can’t avoid politics, said the author. And fewer people everyday can avoid psychiatry. We can’t understand one without the other, they are inextricably linked. I can do this, am comfortable on a theoretical battleground, declaiming righteous opionatry, because it’s safe as milk in comparison to what gets stirred up. There’s no avoiding what it stirs up, the fact that I am trying to get to the truth of my life, no matter how academic or clinical I want to be I know I’m going to end up writing about my family again. Still. Whatever. Overkill, I can promise that much.
But this time is for mourning the unthinkable murder of a stand up psychiatrist, digest the circumstances, knowing there’s no understanding them, and to dread the political ramifications. Dr. Fenton will be made an icon for the continuing demonization and inhumane treatment of psychiatric consumers. It is already beginning. This is just what he fought against. His words, from The Infinite Mind series, via Furious Seasons:
“Drs. Goodwin and Fenton discuss the public image of psychosis and compare it with the research on that subject. Dr. Fenton says that people who are psychotic are far more likely to be the victim of violence than a perpetrator. Public opinion is shaped, he says, by a few high-profile cases like the man who shot up the Capitol building. For every one case like that, he says, there are probably two or three million people quietly dealing with a psychotic condition.”
It’s too late for him to change his mind. This is his story. What if he could see himself used right now as a tool to persecute the population that produced the man who put him in his grave, I wonder if he’d accept it as his right and proper due. Correlation does not equal causation, true enough, but there must be a reason for poetic justice. At least sober duty to study what there is to know, learn hard and guess the rest.
Thomas H. McGlashan, a professor of psychiatry at Yale, worked with Dr. Fenton in the 1980s at Chestnut Lodge Hospital and published several articles with him.
He said Dr. Fenton realized the danger inherent in working with potentially violent patients. He always knew it could be dangerous.
“The worst outcome of all of this is that patients like this would have a harder time getting the help they needed,” McGlashan said. “He would hate that, if that’s the outcome.”
Let’s see what his wife and kids have to say about that.