As Lawyers and Bureaucrats Delay,
The Body Count Rises

Carl Elliott, MD, PhD
5
73

In the three years since my article about the death of Dan Markingson was published in Mother Jones magazine, I have gotten a number of letters and emails from people telling me that they or their children have been mistreated in psychiatric studies at the University of Minnesota. These people hint at stories that sound chillingly familiar: forced medication, coerced enrollment in drug studies, locked wards, involuntary commitment, suicides. The pain and anger in these communications is heartbreaking.

Yet almost without exception, these people are unwilling to make their stories public, or even to meet with me in person. Some tell me they are afraid of retaliation by the university. Others hint at legal restrictions that prevent them from making their stories public. A number have initially agreed to meet with me, but then simply stopped communicating with me without any explanation at all.

It is hard for me to think back about these communications without feeling a sense of despair. When I first wrote about the death of Dan Markingson, I felt that the facts of the case were so clear, and the wrongdoing so self-evident, that the university would be shamed into taking action. Obviously I wanted justice for Mary Weiss. But it was not just that. I was afraid that other research subjects might be in danger. Hearing these other stories, as cryptic and inconclusive as they were, has just reinforced that fear. Exactly what has been going on in the Department of Psychiatry? Have other research subjects died? Do any oversight bodies or legal authorities understand what is going on? If so, why haven’t they done anything?

This is not an idle question. In The New Yorker several years ago I wrote about the case of Dr. Faruk Abuzzahab, a clinical faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry who was eventually judged responsible for the deaths and injuries of 46 severely mentally ill patients under his care. Seventeen of those patients were subjects in research studies Abuzzahab was conducting, many at Fairview Hospital. For a psychiatrist, 46 deaths and injuries is a stunning figure. The disciplinary file itself makes for grisly reading. “Patient #35 committed suicide by jumping off the Franklin Ave. Bridge.” “Patient #38 committed suicide on an overdose of medication.” “Patient committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.” Yet by the time the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice finally suspended Abuzzahab’s license in 1998, over twenty years had passed since some of those deaths and injuries had occurred.

Let me repeat that. Families of victims were forced to wait over twenty years for Abuzzahab to be sanctioned. And even then the punishment was nothing more than a temporary suspicion of his medical license. With rare exceptions, the stories of his victims were never reported in the press, and his research misconduct was never even investigated. In the years since he was disciplined he has continued to do clinical trials. For the moment, let’s put aside the question of whether other subjects have died or been injured in those recent trials. Instead, ask yourself: how many of those forty-six deaths and injuries dating back to the 1970s could have been prevented if someone had acted earlier?

Or to put the matter bluntly: how many desperate patients put a bullet through their heads while the lawyers and bureaucrats sat at their desks, doing nothing?

In the nine and a half years since Dan Markingson died, nothing at the University of Minnesota has changed. No investigation has taken place. No one has been sanctioned. No substantive changes have been made to the IRB, or the Department of Psychiatry, or any of the university procedures or guidelines governing medical research. In fact, outside of the university administration, most people at the University of Minnesota don’t even know who Dan Markingson was. All of the institutional forces and flaws that led to Dan’s death are just as strong now as they were when he died. And all the signs suggest that Dan may well have been only one of many victims.

Someday the extent of the wrongdoing at the University of Minnesota is going to come out. Maybe it will take another twenty years. If Minnesota history is any indicator, it will probably be even longer. But when it does, one of the first questions that people will ask is going to be: Why didn’t anyone do anything? What exactly prevented victims and their families from speaking out and warning others? How many desperate patients put a bullet through their heads while the lawyers and bureaucrats sat at their desks, doing nothing?

Acknowledgement: This post also appears at www.danmarkingson.com, where you can sign a petition to investigate Markingson’s death.

5 COMMENTS

  1. These things are allowed to happen because psychiatric “patients” are seen as subhuman. Abuses against other groups were allowed to go on too. It was all right to beat your slave to death because everyone “knew” that Africans weren’t really human. It isn’t incompetence or laziness here. It’s the denial of the humanity of the victims.

  2. I am sorry that you are experiencing this silencing I know it only too well 🙁

    Psychiatry as a socially condoned institution to deal with those society, families and others find difficult to deal with by saying they are genetically and biologically defective, has successfully managed to silence those they harm by rendering them as unreliable witnesses to their own lives. The money generated through the toxic cooperation between psychiatry and big pharma has meant that ethics and humanity play an insignificant role. Add stigma, discrimination and fear-mongering to the mix and we open the door to accepting human rights abuses. Research in Denmark has shown that for every 1 young woman 18 to 30 years who died in the ‘normal’ population 14.4 were dying in the halfway homes (social psychiatry) and 13.9 in treatment psychiatry (hospitals). It was slightly less for men. These are shocking numbers and an absolute disgrace, yet this is allowed to continue.

    Imagine if this was migraine treatment and doctors were shortening people’s lives on avarage by up to 25 years, and those who did not want the treatment were forced to take it. Unthinkable. But in psychiatry cruel and abusive treatment is accepted and deaths because of the treatment are ignored or covered up. That is why we are a group who have created an organization ‘Død i Psykiatrien’ Death in Psychiatry to address this despicable state of affairs. http://www.doedipsykiatrien.dk/index.php/en/

  3. Nothing is done because people who have been labeled as the so-called “mentally ill” do not matter to society and to the average person in this society. We are a burden, an embarrassment, and inconvience, and a chilling reminder to all that things are not as rosy in our society and in our families as everyone wants so badly to believe. In the opinion and minds of many it would just be so much easier if we just all disappeared overnight. And then, of course all of the mass shootings would end since we are obviously the ones doing all the murdering!