They Call Him Crazy

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Mental patient Rodney Yoder is taking on the psychiatry establishment

A great philosopher once said — or should have — that the true test of a free society is not how it treats its best citizen but how it treats its biggest jerk. You've never heard of Rodney Yoder, but he is assuredly one of America's most spectacular jerks. He is preternaturally rude. He sues people constantly. He abused the two women who put up with him. And he has allegedly written scores of letters to public figures that talk of slaughtering them in dreadful ways.

Is it a sign of our nation's benevolence or its laxity that Yoder is not in prison for these offenses but is instead hospitalized? Since 1991, Yoder has been involuntarily committed to a Chester, Ill., asylum, the Chester Mental Health Center. Yoder, it may surprise you to learn, would rather be in prison. He fought a long legal battle during the 1990s to get himself prosecuted for sending menacing letters to people like Playboy CEO Christie Hefner and the late M&M tycoon Forrest Mars Sr. because he wanted to be sentenced to a fixed term rather than remain committed indefinitely. He lost that battle, so to walk free, he must now convince an Illinois court either that he is not mentally ill or that he is not a threat.

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Jan. 17, 2004

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A group of doctors from around the country has joined Yoder's fight and wants to secure his release at an upcoming trial. The court proceeding will be extraordinary not only because it could finally liberate a man once described in court as one of Illinois' most dangerous mental patients but also because the entire field of psychiatry will go on trial. This is not a figure of speech: Yoder plans to call experts to testify that "mentally ill" is merely a term we use to describe socially unacceptable people and that any medical field that can hold a man for more than a decade and not improve his life must be a failure. The implication of his case is that the true test of psychiatry is not how it treats Princeton mathematicians with "beautiful minds" but how it treats — or fails to treat — its Rodney Yoders, the difficult, impoverished patients who will never be played by Russell Crowe.

So far, the case has gone mostly unnoticed outside local papers. But Yoder's tireless campaign to build a movement for his release is beginning to gain national support. "I have found no evidence of psychosis — only a justifiably angry man," wrote Dr. Loren Mosher in a letter last year to Illinois Governor George Ryan. A former chief of schizophrenia studies at the National Institute of Mental Health, Mosher charged that "the state is practicing preventive detention in the guise of mental-health 'treatment.'" Yoder's most famous advocate is Patch Adams, the physician Robin Williams played in the movie. "He was angry, but it was clear to me that he wasn't crazy," says Adams of his first communications with Yoder several years ago. "I'm putting all my reputation behind saying he won't hurt somebody."

Illinois officials shudder at the thought that Yoder might get out. They say his threatening correspondence--"I'll make sure there isn't enough of you left to identify," reads a typical letter to a judge — proves he is a dangerous man who will explode. But in Illinois, as in all other states, only dangerous people who are also deemed mentally ill can be involuntarily committed. That's why Illinois has hired its own big-ticket experts to evaluate Yoder and, presumably, testify against him. One, the forensic psychologist Reid Meloy, worked with prosecutors on the Timothy McVeigh trial. Meloy & Co. will lend outside heft to the government's position that Yoder suffers from delusional and paranoid disorders so severe that he doesn't recognize them. As state psychologist Daniel Cuneo said in a 1999 trial, "Mr. Yoder continues to have much rage. Without tight controls, he will erupt."

Yoder's case is unusual but perhaps not unique. About 22,000 Americans are held against their will in state psychiatric hospitals. Since the 1960s, many of those institutions have closed, and hundreds of thousands of patients have been freed, some of them improvidently. Many ended up in jail; others are homeless. A few mentally ill people have committed homicides after being discharged, and those killings have won vast media coverage. In response, seven states have passed laws making it easier for authorities to force psychiatric treatment. Recently the nation tried to make sense of Andrea Yates, who drowned her children after years of ineffective schizophrenia treatment. Her case revealed a mental-health system too distracted and meagerly funded to decide what to do with her.

But another side of the mental-health story is about those who are locked up and perhaps should not be. Some 78,000 people live in public and private mental hospitals. Advocates of laws making it easier to commit people argue that hospitalizing those who don't recognize their severe mental illness can help both them and the rest of us. Dr. Fuller Torrey, a get-tough proponent who has battled Yoder's supporters, says two studies show that roughly 40% of those released from psychiatric hospitals end up in jail within a year.

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