Robert L. Okin, MD, was born in the Bronx, New York. He attended college and medical school at the University of Chicago, and after a psychiatric residency at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, he spent two years at the National Institute of Mental Health, where he became interested in community psychiatry. Early in his career he was appointed Commissioner of Mental Health for the state of Vermont, and then for the state of Massachusetts where he led the development of community based services for people who had previously spent years in public mental hospitals. He was one of the first commissioners to recognize and advocate for the creation of supportive housing for these people.
A leading psychiatrist and internationally known expert on mental health service reform, Dr. Okin is a founding member of the board of advisors of Mental Disability Rights International (MDRI). He served as MDRI’s lead psychiatric expert on technical assistance projects and investigative missions in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Hungary, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Romania, Turkey and Ukraine. Following the release of MDRI’s report on Mexico in 2000, Dr. Okin served as an expert consultant to the Mexican government and helped close the abusive Ocaranza psychiatric facility in the state of Hidalgo, replacing it with more homelike settings and community-based services. In Paraguay, Dr. Okin helped MDRI negotiate a historic settlement agreement through the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. As part of the settlement in 2005, Paraguay agreed to a number of improvements in its treatment of the mentally ill, including restructuring the national mental health service system, creating community services, and downsizing the country’s main psychiatric facility.
Dr. Okin was chief of services at the San Francisco General Hospital Department of Psychiatry; professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco; and vice chair of the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry, where he oversaw the development of crucial services for San Francisco’s most acute and chronic mentally ill patients, including the SFGH Department of Psychiatry’s Emergency Department Case Management Program (which received the National Association of Public Hospitals and Health Systems’ Safety Net Award in 1999).
As a world-recognized expert on human rights for the mentally disabled, Dr. Okin helped develop an international consensus statement condemning the use of electroconvulsive therapy without anesthesia. He has been quoted numerous times in the New York Times, was featured on ABC’s 20/20 about his efforts to close down Ocaranza and help former residents live in the community, and has published numerous papers in psychiatric journals. In 2009, he received the American Psychiatric Association’s prestigious Human Rights Award.
Dr. Okin lives in Northern California and has two grown children, Laura and Justin, and a young stepson, Oliver.