Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Treatment Advocacy Center: a Portrait of an Extreme Mental Health Interest Group

The Treatment Advocacy Center (TAC) is nonprofit mental health interest group in the U.S. People who are not familiar with the U.S. mental health system may have never heard of them. The TAC is an organization that advocates for the most extreme views of mental health care. Basically, the TAC’s stance is that people with mental illness are inherently dangerous and their civil rights as well as inability to recognize their own illness are barriers to providing them effective mental health treatment and maintaining public safety. 

In my opinion, the TAC ‘s agenda is to increase stigma for people with a mental health diagnosis in order to eliminate their rights and segregate them from society. The TAC does this by perpetuating negative mental health stereotypes in the media, advocating for mental health legislation that implements coercive mental health treatment practices and increases the number of inpatient psychiatric hospitals. In reality, people with mental illness are no more violent than the general population and mental health stigma prevents them from living successfully in the community. 

The TAC is a big advocate for a practice called Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT). AOT refers to mental health treatment laws and programs that require a person to take medication under court order while living in the community. If the person refuses to take medication while on an AOT order they can be committed to an inpatient psychiatric hospital. AOT is a drastic curtailment of a person’s civil rights. A person on AOT is not in control of their own body. Medication used to treat mental illness can have very serious and harmful side effects. If a person on AOT finds a particular medication intolerable or has an adverse reaction to it they have little choice but to continue taking it. The TAC advocates for AOT laws across the nation.

The TAC was founded by a man named Edwin Fuller Torrey. In the early 1970’s Torrey help build the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to the organization it is today, the largest nonprofit mental health advocacy organization in the U.S. From 1976 to 1985 Torrey was employed at the prestigious and historic St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., (the same place inspired the creation of the transorbital lobotomy and served as an asylum before the Community Mental Health Act in 1964). Sometime during this period he developed his personal theory of the cause of schizophrenia. His theory, which he still promotes to this day, and this is not a joke, is that bacteria found in cat feces has caused schizophrenia in the U.S. on a widespread scale. In 1983, he self published his most well known work, “Surviving Schizophrenia,” which, in my opinion, is actually a very comprehensive reference book about mainstream psychiatric theories and treatments of schizophrenia. However, unfortunately, the book compares treating schizophrenia with pharmaceutical drugs to treating diabetes with insulin injections. This, at the very least, dramatically overstates the efficacy of psychiatric medications.

In 1985 Torrey quit his position at St. Elizabeth’s hospital following a demotion in 1983. In my opinion, 1985 to 1989 or so marked a turning point in Torrey’s career. After he left St. Elizabeth’s, Torrey began to focus more on how the U.S. mental health system cared for people diagnosed with severe mental illnesses, like schizophrenia. Perhaps, this was in part due to the fact that his personal theory of the cause of schizophrenia did not pan out.

Torrey often makes media appearances. He has become the mainstream media’s go to authority on mental illness and violence. Torrey has built a career by stigmatizing people with mental health conditions. So much so that even NAIMI (who is itself is funded primarily by Big Pharma) tried to publicly distance itself from TAC in 1998. In 1997 NAMI was making plans to join forces with the TAC. However, because of outcry from mental health activists who felt that the TAC’s views were too extreme, NAMI abandoned this plan.

Parents and Children

In 1989, after becoming an independent researcher, Torrey met billionaire Ted Stanley and his wife Vada. Ted Stanley had made his fortune selling collectables. His son had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Their son had experienced a mental health crisis just a year earlier in 1988. The Stanley’s had been frustrated with their inability to have their son treated for mental illness and expressed concern that when their son was in a inpatient psychiatric facility he was going to be released too early because he did not pose a imminent danger to others.

The Stanley’s saw their perceived inability to provide effective mental health care to their son and the lack of research into the etiology of severe mental illness as a worthy cause to donate their money to and the Stanley Medical Research Institute (SMRI) was formed in 1989. Since then, the SMRI has been one of the largest donors to research in the causes of severe mental illness becoming a virtual pillar of mainstream psychiatry. E. Fuller Torrey developed a philanthropic relationship with Ted Stanley, and in 1998 the TAC was formed by Torrey funded primarily by the SMRI.

The TAC is the most publicized, most financed organization advocating for restrictive mental health policies and practices in the U.S. Torrey has written many books about his views on mental illness. Many of the people that buy Torrey books and ascribe to his beliefs are parents of people diagnosed with severe mental illness, just like Billionaire Ted Stanley. It is not uncommon in the U.S. for parents of individuals diagnosed with severe mental illness to become very involved with their children’s mental health treatment. NAIMI hosts support groups for parents and family members of individuals diagnosed with mental illness across the nation. Some of these parents identify with Torrey’s extreme views of mental health treatment. They share Torrey’s belief that people diagnosed with severe mental illness should be coerced into receiving mental health treatment and that their child’s belief that non-medical explanations for their experiences and behavior are plausible is itself a symptom of mental illness.

Many members of the TAC themselves have family members diagnosed with mental illness. I do not assume to know anything certain about the social dynamics of the families that these individuals belong to, however, it is undeniable that the experiences of some of these individuals are troubling. Torrey himself had a sister who was diagnosed with schizophrenia named Rhoda Torrey. Sadly, Rhoda passed away in 2010. Surely, there is no question that with the aid of E. Fuller Torrey’s extensive expertise his beloved sister would have become a normal productive member of society, right? Unfortunately, despite being 25 years old in 1964, when the Community Mental Health Act was signed by John F. Kennedy, Rhoda Torrey spent the majority of her life hospitalized in psychiatric treatment facilities. The Community Mental Health Act of 1964 lead to the deinstitutionalization of vast majority of mental patients and was intended to allow people who have a mental health diagnosis to live in the community. Such was not the case for Rhoda Torrey.

Natalie Fuller, daughter of Doris Fuller the Executive Director of the TAC, was 16 when she wrote a book with her mother titled, Promise You Won’t Freak Out: A Teenager Tells Her Mother the Truth About Boys, Booze, Body Piercing, and Other Touchy Topics (and Mom Responds).” The book details Natalie’s experiences from ages 13 to 16 using drugs and alcohol, experimenting sexually, breaking the law and her relationship with her mother. After attending college for four years, she began hearing voices. She was subsequently diagnosed with bi polar disorder in 2008. Following being diagnosed, Natalie often did not take her prescribed medications because she believed that they were not helping her. Sadly, Natalie passed away in 2015. She ended her life when she was 29 years old by stepping in front of a train in Baltimore, MD.

Although I am sure that Doris Fuller cared for her daughter a great deal, in a Washington Post article Doris Fuller stated that Natalie suffered from a, “terminal mental illness.” I would like to point out that epidemiologically speaking mental illness cannot kill you. Perhaps if Natalie had found alternative mental health therapies to help with the other forms of mental health treatment she received she would not have met the fate she did.

The TAC claims to an advocacy organization. In reality, the TAC is a thought leader of a segment of the American public who want to impose draconian mental health laws and practices on individuals who are diagnosed with mental illness. Many members of the TAC have relatives who are diagnosed with mental illness. Perhaps for these individuals their crusade to implement these laws is fueled social dynamics of their own families.

This is E. Fuller Torrey presenting Tim Murphy with an award.
In recent years, the TAC has been very involved in pushing forward a piece of federal legislation known as HR 2646, aka the Murphy Bill. The Murphy Bill will create more mental health hospitals, provided financial incentive for states to implement AOT laws, eliminate patient’s rights and defund many existing mental health treatment programs among other terrible things. Torrey is working with Tim Murphy, the congressional sponsor of the bill, to have it passed through congress.

A Final Word

Torrey was born in a time when if a person experienced a mental health crisis they would be confined in an institution and possible never get out. Now 78, he is one of the last psychiatrists born in this era. Although our society clearly could do a better job of accommodating people with mental health challenges, the days of institutionalizing mental patients in the U.S. are largely over. Torrey’s views are backward. Instead of funding institutions to house people with mental illness we should provide services to better accommodate them living in the community. We should fund services such as day centers and peer run crisis respites. We should increase funding for community mental health centers and create more jobs and affordable housing. Instead of funding crisis based services we should fund services that help people before they reach mental health crisis.

Individuals with mental illness are not only capable of being integrated into society but making important contributions to it. In the past, people diagnosed with mental illness have made significant contributions to many areas of knowledge like art and mathematics. However, if the TAC had its way people such as these would be locked away in an asylum. Torrey and the TAC have a vision of our society that is very repressive. Hopefully, in the future our society will not repeat the mistakes of the past by returning to an era where people with mental health challenges are confined in asylums and our society will remain a relatively accommodating environment for individuals that think and act differently.

Sources Used

(2015). Retrieved June 6, 2016, from www.treatmentadvocacycenter.org

STUART, H. (2003, January 1). Violence and mental illness: An overview. Retrieved June 6, 2016, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1525086/

Winerip, M. (1998, February 22). Schizophrenia's Most Zealous Foe. Retrieved June 6, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/1998/02/22/magazine/schizophrenia-s-most-zealous-foe.html?pagewanted=2

(1996, January 1). Retrieved June 6, 2016, from http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/transcript/lobotomist-transcript/

Mental Health Workers Bring Psychiatric Drugs To Your HOME To Assure Compliance: Stop PACT! (n.d.). Retrieved June 6, 2016, from https://web.archive.org/web/20050310192202/http://www.mindfreedom.org/mindfreedom/ioc/workers.shtml

ROBERTS, S. (2016, January 8). Ted Stanley, Whose Son’s Illness Inspired Philanthropy, Dies at 84. Retrieved June 6, 2016, from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/07/us/ted-stanley-medical-philanthropist-dies-at-84.html?_r=0

(n.d.). Retrieved June 6, 2016, from https://www.nami.org/

Rhoda Niven Torrey. (n.d.). Retrieved June 6, 2016, from http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/uticaod/obituary.aspx?pid=143619266

Fuller, D. (2015, April 20). My daughter, who lost her battle with mental illness, is still the bravest person I know. Retrieved June 6, 2016, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/the-demons-got-my-beautiful-loving-daughter/2015/04/20/cdaaa338-dfc2-11e4-a1b8-2ed88bc190d2_story.html

HR 2646, The Murphy Bill. (2015, December 11). Retrieved June 6, 2016, from https://stopmurphyslaw.wordpress.com/

Representative Tim Murphy Wins 2014 Torrey Advocacy Commendation. (2015). Retrieved June 6, 2016, from http://www.treatmentadvocacycenter.org/solution/implement-aot/get-aot-where-you-live/2756-representative-tim-murphy-wins-2014-torrey-advocacy-commendation- 


  1. Good post. Apparently, there have been a series of lawsuits against the Stanley Medical Research Institute alleging that they have been stealing brains from deceased mental patients. Some of these lawsuits have been settled out of court. Read this article: http://goo.gl/qP8chB

  2. Dave: this is a fantastic piece. You are a good researcher and and excellent writer. I hope we will be hearing more from you in years to come!! Unfortunately, the disinformation campaign waged by TAC will be hard to counter. Fuller seems to have gotten a major head start distributing this BS propaganda because of he secured private funding and his agenda aligns neatly with big Pharma's agenda which is to make as many people as possible into lifelong customers, whatever the cost to our quality of lives and our very longevity.