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Drug addiction may ruin lives and pack jails, but as a political issue, the treatment of addicts remains below the radar screen, says Mitchell S. Rosenthal '56. “You have to have a president or governor articulating it,” he says. “It has to be an issue driven from the top.”

That is one of the challenges faced by Rosenthal as founder and president of Phoenix House, the nation's largest nonprofit organization devoted to the treatment and prevention of substance abuse.

For all the popular concern about crime and the economy, Rosenthal feels, too few notice the impact of drug addiction on both. “We have not, as cities, states, a nation, invested what should be invested in treatment,” he says. A psychiatrist by training, he has been combating illegal drugs and their destructive powers from the inside-inside the brain of the addict-since founding Phoenix House in 1967.

The organization has gone from being a New York City network to a nonprofit foundation with more than 80 programs in eight states. With $84 million in revenue in fiscal year 2000, Phoenix House treats around 5,400 adults and adolescents daily.

A biology major and psychology minor at Lafayette, Rosenthal once planned to be a child psychiatrist. But all that changed when, as a Navy doctor in Oakland, Calif., he saw the impact of the wide availability of drugs on sailors in Vietnam, where drug use itself was contributing to the casualties.


“It wasn't that they had suffered in wartime and taken refuge in drugs,” Rosenthal says of his patients. “Many had family, school, and adjustment problems before they got into the service. They were a group of psychologically troubled people. I felt that if we just discharged them, we would be sending them back to the problems they came into the Navy with. I felt that I was witnessing the beginning of a tragedy that could be stopped.”

“It was an opportunity for constructive engagement and to see if we could do something to change the way they were functioning,” adds Rosenthal, who aimed for the sailors to return to active duty. He established the armed services' first “therapeutic community” based on California AA's Synanon program.

The success of using groups and peer culture as a therapeutic tool “had a profound affect on my professional life.” The core idea of TC (what is this?) is that people who live together and are involved in therapy together come to know one another fully, observe each others' behavior and depend on one another.

“In the therapeutic community, people have an interdependence of living. If you add the dimension of helping the individual members to gain self-understanding and how to navigate in life, you have something very powerful,” Rosenthal says.

After leaving the Navy in 1967, Rosenthal was recruited by then-New York mayor John Lindsay as deputy commissioner for rehabilitation of New York's newly created Addiction Services Agency, where he founded Phoenix House and built a network of residential treatment facilities and storefront centers.

`When New York's fiscal problems forced the agency to curtail support for the network in 1970, Rosenthal resigned to head the nonprofit Phoenix House Foundation. In the years since then, he says, the United States government's “war on drugs” has been quite successful in many ways, for the number of illicit drug users in the U.S. has been literally cut in half during the past two decades.


“In other ways, however, much remains to be done,” says Rosenthal. “The incidence of high-risk drug abuse that is most damaging to abusers and most costly to society remains at unacceptable levels. And youthful drug abuse, although well below the peak levels of the late '70s, rose sharply during the early and mid-'90s, and has yet to decline.”

Even if this means he has his work cut out for him, it's no problem because Rosenthal loves his work, perhaps a bit too much. “I'm not a good vacationist,” the Brooklyn native says.

Rosenthal says the excellent psychology department at Lafayette and opportunities to work in state hospitals gave him a great sense of abnormal psychology. He also credits the biology department in the era of Louis Stableford with setting him on course to be a scientist.

A doctor's desire to ease others' pain, even the pain of troublesome drug addicts, has shaped Rosenthal's career. As a psychiatrist, he wants to use his knowledge of human functioning to improve the human condition.

“We're living in a society with a high level of drug use. Certain aspects are up and others are down,” Rosenthal says. “We have hundreds of thousands of people who are in need of treatment, and it's causing tremendous societal problems: in education, housing, health, and transportation. But we have data after 25 years of research that treatment works. There is an economic and humanistic basis to invest in treatment.”

That is why his plans for Phoenix House are to continue strengthening its programs, and the research and clinical work force, as well as working to change the public's perception that not much can be done about drug addiction.

“It can be cured,” Rosenthal says.

Categorized in: Alumni Profiles