Feel Hopeless About Reforming a Broken System? Incremental Change Is Still Change


Recently I went to a bowling alley—not my usual place to hang out.  But the reason I found myself there was that I had been invited to a “Bowling Bonanza.”  There were about 100 people who all had been diagnosed one way or the other with both mental health and alcohol problems.  Many had done time in state prisons and local jails.  Most of them had been in psychiatric hospitals.

The bowling event was organized by a totally peer-run organization called Dual Diagnosis Anonymous.  It had been funded 15 years ago during my tenure as a state mental health and addictions commissioner. The founder was a grizzled Vietnam veteran, Corbett Monica.  He told me it was for people seeking acceptance and mutual support to recover from their problems with both mental health challenges and addictions and who didn’t fit in the system—or anywhere else, for that matter.

We provided Corbett with $50,000 with virtually no conditions other than to get meetings going across the state.  He drove close to 100,000 miles in the first two years, and 100 meetings were started—at least one in virtually all of the Oregon counties.  By now there are over 1,200 members, 300,000 “hits” on the website, and a budget of around $600,000.  Members can participate—voluntarily—in state hospitals, state prisons, and community settings.  While meetings use the 12 steps, the main benefit is to finally have acceptance for who they are, not their diagnoses or their pasts.  They also have access to social activities like the Bowling Bonanza.

3D illustration of a model house in construction on a table of blueprints

A strong case has been made at Mad in America for the harm caused by psychiatry and its paradigm of a medical/biological model.  Because of that, some days it is easy to feel like giving up.  Despite all our efforts, it seems that a radical transformation of the system has not yet occurred.  However, I’d like to make the case that more incremental changes can directly improve the lives of thousands.  Moreover, these changes may have a ripple effect, ushering in that big change “one of these days.”

As Rebecca Solnit writes, “That nearly all change is incremental and even a comprehensive victory usually has intermediary steps preceding it is one of the things that disappears in the short view.  Imperfect and frustrating though those steps may be, they can still lead us to our destination.  We can’t reach the summit without climbing the mountain.”

Over 30 years ago, I was introduced to the world of peer supports by Mind Empowered, Inc. (MEI).  It was organized and directed solely by two persons with lived experience, Jerry Wang and Garrett Smith. I believe they should be far more recognized for their pioneering work.  MEI began with a day program offering mutual support.  They soon came up with the idea that peers who had themselves been state hospital patients could do a better job getting people out of a dysfunctional state hospital than the medically oriented staff.  They connected with people who had been in this hospital for a long time and were considered the most “difficult.”  It worked.

A critical element was hope that they could be people other than state hospital “patients.”  This project came about with partnership from state office visionaries who took a chance funding a program that no one really knew at the time would work.  Because of its success, it received national attention in a 1994 article in Hospital and Community Psychiatry (now Psychiatric Services) with Garrett Smith as lead author, and another co-author one of the staff.  It was noted in the 1996 US Surgeon General’s Report on Mental Health as an early peer-delivered project.

So there are two questions that we must ask about these two programs and those that follow:  Did they transform the system, and did we do the right thing to support and fund them?  I think that the answer is no to the first question and yes to the second.

Here are some more of these kinds of system changes:

Increased community supports and housing

With more community services, housing, and supports, the time people spent in the state hospital was reduced by 30% on average.  Community mental health programs increased their involvement by creating new housing and other community supports.  With these new resources, the local mental health authorities agreed to be increasingly responsible for the costs of state hospital care for people who were not discharged promptly.  The number of persons involuntarily admitted to state and local hospital was also reduced.

Improved psychiatric inpatient services

The use of seclusion and restraint was reduced in both state hospitals and local acute care units.

The nation’s first Supported Education project was initiated in the state hospital.  The service was implemented with leadership from Dr. Karen Unger, the key developer of it, based on the principles of Supported Housing and Employment created at Boston University.  People could then continue their education while still in their hospitalization rather than wait. Over 100 people were enrolled by 2007.

Respect for peer advocacy and funding for peer-delivered supports

A consumer/survivor council was created so that peer advocates had direct access to the mental health commissioner.  There were open and sometimes heated discussions in some meetings because advocates like David Oaks were members.  Uncomfortable as it was at times, this kind of direct feedback was a key reason for creating it.  The Council was made a requirement to continue to this day by the Legislature in 2008.

A “Peer Bridges” program was established in the state hospital.  This project was based on the same principles of the MEI discharge program already described.  Staff members show the kind of support that only peers who “have been there and done that” can do.  They accept those who are patients as people.  They advocate for respect and hope for people, most of who were admitted by court orders.  The project is still in operation in the state hospital.  It operates a drop-in center on the hospital grounds as well as providing support in the state hospital itself.  It is now known as the Peer Recovery Services Department.  The seven-person team works in a very challenging environment.

One state hospital was renamed “Blue Mountain Recovery Center” because of a petition initiated and signed by an overwhelming number of patients.  The Legislature formalized the new name in 2006.  This was a clear directive for staff to rethink the purpose of the hospital and to challenge them to make it real.  One can reasonably ask, “What’s in a name?”  But words begin to define the purpose of a program and can be used to hold programs accountable with additional advocacy.

Peer-delivered services were established in the community based on the recovery model.  Work is ongoing to adapt Medicaid funds using the “social determinant of health” category that managed care organizations should be using for peer supports.

Support for people who are in the criminal justice system and who are homeless

$4 million was approved by the Oregon Legislature to fund jail diversion programs in all 36 counties. These programs were for people charged with low-level crimes who should be in the community rather than a county jail. The resources included intensive supports, coordinating with courts, parole, and probation officials to ensure that treatment, housing, and other needs are being met in the community.

$6.15 million was secured for housing to transition people from institutional settings and homelessness. The funds were matched with other resources and expanded to reach housing that was valued at $55 million.  The investments led to 29 projects in nearly half of Oregon’s counties.  These projects included 14 supportive apartments, four transitional housing programs, and other residential community programs.  This resulted to housing for 287 people, 128 of whom were leaving psychiatric hospital facilities. There were also seven projects to house 54 residents in recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction, many of whom were struggling with mental health challenges too.

Attention to health problems and access to health care

Work began to assess and improve the health of persons with mental health challenges.  The urgency of this process was based on two studies.  The first was conducted by Dr. Joe Parks with the National Association of State Program Directors (NASHPD), which showed that people in the United States with major mental health challenges had a life expectancy 15 years lower than the national average.  The second was a study conducted in Oregon using public health mortality data, which showed that people with both mental health and addictions enrollments died at the average age of 44 years.  It was recognized that a joint effort was required which included people with mental health problems, physicians, state staff, and wellness professionals.  The initial goal was to share information on scientific research, literature, peer guidance, and successful practices among user groups.

Improving care for children and adolescents

The state hospital wards for children and adolescents were closed.  Several successful community residential programs were selected to serve these same children and adolescents.  The change was based on the idea that no kid in Oregon should ever have to say, “I was a patient in the state hospital.”  We believed better services could be provided in community settings.  The facilities have now operated for 15 years with the goal of returning children and adolescents to healthy environments back home whenever possible.  Just one example of the kind of services now provided is an art program so that children can work on their own projects as part of their therapy.

Increased supportive and wraparound services were established to reduce lengths of stay in juvenile corrections and other out-of-home placements.  The goals were to increase school attendance, reduce in-school suspensions and expulsions, and decrease arrests. Families reported that they were more satisfied with coordination, participation, treatment, and outcomes.  These efforts were especially important for the most challenged children and adolescents.

The state and community mental health programs collaborated with the state’s child abuse protective services to improve mental health care.  They also sought to increase the percentage of mental health assessments to identify trauma for children placed in out-of-home care.  $16 million in new funding was targeted for more services for families.  $10 million was directed at families whose children were either in or at risk of being in the child welfare system due to their parents’ substance abuse.  About two thirds of the counties participated in the evidence-based Strengthening Families Program to decrease adolescent substance abuse and aggression through the promotion of better parenting and child-parent relationships.

Other initiatives

Early psychosis programs that had been located in the mid-Willamette Valley were expanded with legislative approval of $3.02 million to make them statewide resources, making Oregon the first state in the nation to significantly expand these life-saving early intervention programs beyond limited pilot projects.  Early psychosis services and supports were accessed for about half of the young people in their first major mental health challenge.  It was not long before programs served 200 young people and their families.

A Cultural Competency Project was established to create standards, values, and policy requirements for all organizations and agencies that received grant funds from the state.  These included county social services organizations, contractors, managed care organizations, their provider networks, and all the other agencies in their counties.  The goal was to serve as a planning document for state and county governments and provider networks to address these issues in each county’s implementation plan.

Observations and questions to consider

As I noted, these changes did not achieve a system-wide reform.  In these projects, the profession of psychiatry changed the least, The medical model still predominates everywhere and it is especially difficult to reform in state hospitals.  Another major obstacle is that community programs are largely funded by Medicaid—by definition, largely based on the medical paradigm.  Without a major overhaul of finances and organization, every public mental health service caters to doctors being in charge and signing off on the treatment plans for every “patient.”

However, virtually all of the initiatives in this list were funded outside the medical model.  Creative initiatives have relied on state and local funds, with relatively minor amounts of federal funds.  This took leadership, advocacy, and partnership at every level.  Most of these changes, though not all, have continued and some have expanded.  As a side note, in Oregon they were all achieved in an environment of major state budget deficits that preceded these achievements.

Now these questions remain:  Should we have made these changes?  Did they just serve to prop up a hopeless state hospital and community mental health system?  Some might argue that we should not have made these things happen—that they were just window dressing on a broken system.

On the other hand, how would the thousands of people who benefited from one or more of the changes respond?

If such a survey could be done, how would the people respond whose stays were reduced by 30% at the state hospital?  Would they say that would have preferred to have been secluded and restrained more and to stay extra days without access to better housing and community services or things like improving their education or the peer recovery team or support groups like DDA?

How would the kids respond to the closing of the state hospital? Would they say they wished they could return to their old wards?

How would families respond whose young adults were served in the early intervention program?  Would they say things would have been better if they’d joined the system that called them “chronically mentally ill?

Do the patients at the state hospital wish they had never had the understanding and support of the peer recovery team?

As a hopeless reformer, I’m pretty sure how these questions would be answered.  I hope my thoughts here will hearten those who work daily, against the often prevailing winds, to keep going.



Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


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  1. Thanks for this important and helpful blog Bob (may I call you Bob?) I agree and support all that you write about.

    Did you read my recent blog “Growing Good Mental Health” I invite you to take a look. In addition to the important work you write about, it’s also time to start teaching and talking about what every person at every age can do to grow their own good mental health. That means we also need to start defining what mental health is, as more than just the absence of Mental Illness symptoms.

    I would love your thoughts and comments about my blog and this idea.


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  2. Hi Robert

    The MH system is more or less broken in every country in the world and getting worse. Mental Health drugs (tranquillisers), don’t work in the long term and usually disable.

    The problem in the Global Economy is that politicians have got to play up to Pharmaceutical companies to keep their jobs. The taxpayer is then left to pay for the disabling drugs and the disability.

    In Ireland theres no difference between Fianna Fail, Fine Gael or Sinn Feinn – and they all promote “Mental Illness”.

    In the UK the Conservatives under Rishi Sunak are much the same as Labour under Sir Keir Starmer .

    Democracy is also gone – its finished.

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  3. Robert, it sounds like maybe you’re feeling frustrated by the continued critiques and what some may call negativity? One thing my colleague and I are working on is a “yes and” approach to analyzing where we are. This is not an either/or discussion.

    Is is true that these programs were meaningful and did real good for people? Yes.


    Is it true that these changes have not yet achieved much larger in the way of larger system-wide reform? Also yes.

    Often it seems like resources and efforts are framed as having to choose one or the other. That doing the programs above comes at the expense of the efforts for larger reform. I view that as a partly false narrative. It becomes a problem when the efforts you’ve done (often through not fault of people like you) ARE framed as “major change” and “meaningful progress”.

    As you yourself say, they aren’t. They can, most accurately, be what’s mentioned above. Both immediately impactful to individual lives while also not helping people, including those individuals themselves, escape the larger systems that remain oppressive problems.

    It’s a narrative trap to suggest otherwise.

    Open to thoughts on this. We’re still tinkering with the “yes and” theory, but it feels very promising to me.

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    • The problem I’ve seen over the years is that reform efforts are only funded initially, but once the “testing” period is over, they are either discontinued or left to scrabble for grant money every year, because the system “can’t afford them.” The reason we “can’t afford” the reform efforts is because all the MONEY is going toward paying for overpaid psychiatrists and overpriced drugs for overhyped ‘conditions,’ and no one is willing to get their snoots out of the trough so the money can go to something workable.

      That’s my experience, anyway.

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      • Steve, I think that’s a huge issue. When I look back and to the present I do see several on my list that after 15 years are still going, like the peer recovery unit at the state hospital (though keeping it going is a big challenge because it’s working in an extremely stressful environment), DDA which is very much alive and growing, the peer advisory council which has at times been co-opted, and the replacement of the state hospital units for kids is still very much alive albeit with challenges every day with kids and staff safety issues. So it takes courage on the part of people with lived experience and program leadership to keep dealing with the winds of psychiatry and bureaucracy blowing strong winds against them.

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        • “So it takes courage on the part of people with lived experience and program leadership to keep dealing with the winds of psychiatry”

          I have courage. I use courage every day to live a good life despite the iatrogenic harm

          The human rights violations are constant, why do we not have recourse when one of yours ruins another life? Where is your courage?

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      • The other part of the limited and sporadic funding for anything different is lack of acknowledgement of how much damage the system has done to people. We need doctors who listen and understand that our health problems stem largely from trauma and polypharmacy. We need places to live and work, not just places to bowl, where we are not ostracized and where we do not have to live in fear of someone learning about our history. If whoever is funding these programs thinks that we only need a little social outlet and if we don’t respond to that then well we’re just too far gone: we need major help because the system caused major damage. We need help in proportion to the damage done. And we’re not ever going to get it.

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  4. My adult son is in dire need of help. Well of course he grew up with a mother who was being drugged labeled brain shocked and otherwise abused by the mental health system. A single mother since his father took no responsibility and society supported that.
    He hates me and lets me know it. All the time. I finally blocked him. The big problem is not that he hates me, it’s other things. But I know that there is no help anywhere. It’s great to talk about paradigm shifts and incremental change and being patient and being mindful that change happens slowly, but as Gina pointed out, the lives that have been ruined are ruined. It’s extremely painful for people whose lives have been destroyed to read little bits here and there of “hope” or “something different. Maybe someday somewhere hopefully. Fingers crossed”. Does this mean we stop talking about fraud and human rights and civil rights violations? Does it mean we stop talking about class action lawsuits?
    Elizabeth Holmes just got sentenced to 11 years in prison for fraud. People said you know you can’t play around with patient health. You can’t experiment in ways that are detrimental to patients. That was her big crime, that and losing rich people’s money of course. How come Elizabeth Holmes is the only one that gets tried and convicted for medical fraud?

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    • I was pregnant with him and got kicked out of my parents house and was homeless so wound up in a locked psych ward. I was verbally abused every single day by a psych nurse who liked to curse at me and call me names when no one else was within earshot. Yeah, she abused me when I was pregnant which means she abused a child. No one cared then, no one cares now. Did they give me any form of support or counseling or help me make plans for the future? No. They just warehoused me and made sure I knew every day that I was a little b*tch.

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  5. Following the logic of the “elephant eating” metaphor for approaching massive projects, incremental positive change is a step toward goal completion. There may be a thousand or more bites to eat that elephant, but it still has to be done one bite at a time. Most importantly, as the writer demonstrated, lives were positively changed, and for that thanks should be given.

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    • The challenge comes when someone is walking behind you, undermining the incremental changes you have gotten implemented before. That’s what drove me out of the profession eventually. I realized there are some people whose idea of “positive change” was very different than mine, and in fact, MY ideas of “positive change” were threatening and destabilizing to their safe (if utterly ineffective) worldview. And a lot of those people seemed to be the ones running the show.

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      • Of course there is always context for “positive change,” by definition, if you are practicing individualized and person-centered services. However, there has to be a baseline or standard somewhere of what is needed for surviving and thriving in the context that one lives if there is going to be any services at all that move people along on a recovery-oriented continuum, respectfully, thoughtfully, contextually, and successfully. It takes a variety of paths, but there are still paths that can be developed and serve many people and help them reach their goals for experiencing a life worth living. Peers are great resources to help develop paths to help one another.

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      • Abuses are still happening. Fraud is still happening. Diagnoses are being *added* to the DSM, not taken away. I’m still not safe going to the doctor. There have been no apologies or acknowledgements of the fraud. The victims of the opiate epidemic at least got a class action lawsuit. It’s more gaslighting to suggest that people who were harmed by the system need to be happy with incremental change and slow paradigm shifts. Or, these conversations are not meant to include survivors — just professionals.

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      • KateL,

        I’m not feeling particularly grateful either. These articles are uncomfortable. I can see that the right words are said, but there seems to be an endorsement of harm throughout, including the othering language and “savior” point of view.

        I think more epistemic justice is needed. I don’t want this site to be undermined by psych pro’s seeking to be seen as metaphorical “good apples”.

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        • Anotherone,
          I agree. It’s hard, as a survivor of psychiatric harm to, on the one hand, begin to understand what happened to me over the last 40 years and stop blaming myself, to finally reject the narrative that it has all been my fault, that I’m personality disordered, non compliant, defective, bad, while on the other hand being patient while incremental change and slow paradigm shifts maybe start to happen and hold the thought that we are working toward something better…it’s too hard, mentally. And with more and more evidence coming out that what’s been going on is actual fraud, actual malpractice, etc…it feels like a big ask. Maybe people who are working in the system can take the long-term, steady as she goes view, and maybe in fact that is the view that they need to take because if they see the system as inherently corrupt and abusive, that leads to hopelessness. But for survivors, it’s just as hard to see the system as essentially benevolent and well-meaning and something that just needs to add more peer support programs.

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  6. Bob,

    This is ridiculous… most of us here have been personally victimized by someone with your same credentials, singing the same tune, demanding that the “others” dance along. My local psych ward social worker, who could have written this article himself, used to take me into a secluded room by myself to intimidate me into “confessing” that my family is great and its all my fault. He’s still climbing the ladder, profitting from harming people. Uncoincidentally, he also support 12 step programs!

    So you all “gave” this peer support worker $50,000 to set these up? Why not more? All of your salaries are higher and what exactly are you doing to fix the system? Seems to be that his work is more beneficial to “patients” than whatever the pro’s are doing

    Maybe you should focus your attention towards your colleagues in social work. If there were standards and an actual regulatory body for your field, I bet the change would be more than incremental.

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  7. Bob, unfortunately reforming the system is not really an option. Because we’ve been reforming it for decades and decades but coercion still is the fundamental basis of it. As my dear departed friend Tom Szasz maintained one must abolish coercive psychiatry tout court and create a voluntary helping system for those who wished to be helped. Calling other things such as bad, violent, or criminal behavior mental health issues simply confounds a variety of human travails that are not the same. The mental health system like all systems principally works to maintain itself and doesn’t actually focus on helping those seeking help to be helped as they wished to be helped but sure pays those in its employ well. Bob, you seem to be working awfully hard to justify a system that is moribund.

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