Soviet Psychiatric Abuses Continue, Americans Say

Times Staff Writer

A delegation of U.S. psychiatrists reported Wednesday that visits to Soviet mental hospitals show that, despite some reforms, the Soviet practice of using psychiatry to punish political dissidents continues.

Appearing before a congressional group, the psychiatrists also said that the powerful Soviet psychiatric hierarchy, guilty of past malpractice, remains in place.

“Misuse of psychiatric hospitalization in the (Soviet Union) to confine dissidents . . . (has) not yet come to an end,” said Dr. Loren H. Roth, a University of Pittsburgh professor and the leader of the U.S. delegation. He said that despite new laws, “patients are denied basic rights, are apparently subject to punitive use of medication and (are) fearful of retaliation.”

The delegates were reporting to the Congressional Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which monitors the Helsinki accords. They said their visits provided proof that dissidents have been imprisoned and have even been given excruciatingly painful medications. One delegate estimated the reforms that have been implemented as only 10% of what is necessary.


The report is expected to increase opposition to readmitting the Soviet psychiatric organization into the World Psychiatric Assn. The Soviets were condemned by that world body in 1977 and effectively expelled from it six years ago. They have been seeking to return in order to regain respectability, and also to improve the Soviet human rights image amid the new warmth in East-West relations.

But delegation member Peter Reddaway, a George Washington University professor of political science and co-author of the first Western book on Soviet psychiatric abuses, said that “reform in Soviet psychiatry has, to date, been limited in declared intent and even more limited in practice.”

Reddaway cited a report in the government newspaper Izvestia last month that described the forced hospitalization of a timber worker. The hospitalization came at the direction of a local party boss because of “undesirable ideas” the worker voiced at a meeting of candidates for the Soviet legislature in March.

Beginning in the early 1970s, the delegation said, reports seeped out that political, religious and other dissidents were being put into psychiatric hospitals for “anti-Soviet behavior,” such as handing out leaflets, and for “socially dangerous acts,” such as seeking to emigrate.


Soviet authorities repeatedly denied the charges and even jailed some dissident psychiatrists who made them, but they refused to allow any investigation until international pressure and the arrival of President Mikhail S. Gorbachev led to some changes starting two years ago.

The Soviet government became more willing to discuss the issue with the United States as part of the human rights exchanges. The Soviet press began exposing the psychiatric abuses. Some laws were changed to provide basic rights for the “patients,” and the Soviets eventually agreed to the visit of the U.S. psychiatric delegation last February and March.

However, according to Roth, “significant procedural obstacles” hindered its work, indicating “Soviet reluctance to provide full access.”

The most striking example was that of 37 “hospitalized” persons whom the Americans asked to see. Seventeen were released in the three months between the time of the request and the delegation’s arrival, according to its scientific director, Dr. Darrel A. Regier of the National Institutes of Mental Health. Most of those individuals were found and interviewed, however.


Virtually all of the patients and former patients interviewed by the Americans--24 of 27 all told--had been diagnosed as having schizophrenia or another psychotic disorder, he reported.

“A substantial number of individuals who were arrested for political activities were diagnosed as having severe mental disorder on the basis of such symptoms as ‘delusions of reformism’ or ‘anti-Soviet thoughts,’ ” Regier said. They were not impaired, confused or illogical but were often involuntarily hospitalized as schizophrenic, he said.