Dr. Mitchell Rosenthal, Phoenix House Founder, Dies at 87
Dr. Mitchell Rosenthal, the founder of Phoenix House, which branded itself the largest private, nonprofit therapeutic drug-treatment program in the United States, died on Monday in Manhattan. He was 87.
His wife, Sarah Simms, said he died in a hospital from complications of pneumonia.
Dr. Rosenthal, a psychiatrist, popularized a regimen of abstinence and group therapy in a communal residential setting where people could recover from drug and alcohol addiction, as well as addressing other behavioral problems.
He started Phoenix House in 1967 in a former flophouse on the Upper West Side of Manhattan after six addicts who had been in the detoxification unit at Beth Israel Medical Center asked for his help.
The program grew from there into a nationwide network that by the 1990s had residential treatment centers in 10 states, where it continues to operate, as well as in some prisons. It also opened high school academies. Programs in Britain, the Netherlands and Israel were established on the Phoenix House model.
“Throughout history, ‘hopeless’ has been among the most common tags applied to people addicted to alcohol and drugs,” Dr. Rosenthal wrote this year in an autobiography that he completed just before he died.
“Stigmatized as weak characters and moral degenerates, ‘alkies’ and ‘dope fiends’ were shunned by much of the medical profession,” he continued. “Few wanted to have anything to do with them. That is, until the arrival in earnest of the therapeutic community model, in the 1960s. It was the first ray of hope.”
A prodigious and gregarious fund-raiser, Dr. Rosenthal rose rapidly from a minor New York City official into the public face of residential addiction-treatment therapy nationwide.
He advised the Reagan administration on drug policy and promoted Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No to Drugs” campaign. He deftly corralled celebrities, philanthropists and other public figures to generate government grants and private contributions for Phoenix House. And he did the same to build political support for his own anti-addiction approach, given his conclusion that the official “war on drugs” had failed.
For more than five decades, he argued against the legalization of hard drugs; warned that decriminalizing marijuana use by adults would encourage young people to use it; insisted that methadone was a quick fix for weaning addicts off heroin and not a permanent solution; and generally scorned needle-exchange programs and similar initiatives that, to him, seemed to acknowledge illegal drug use as a grim but irreversible reality.
In a letter to The New York Times in 1993, Dr. Rosenthal wrote that the impact of drug abuse extended far beyond crime and the criminal justice system.
“Disordered drug abusers are largely responsible today not only for crime but also for random violence and youthful violence, domestic violence and child abuse,” he wrote. “They are carriers of social disorder and generate enormous public costs.”
He argued that treatment was more effective and less expensive than prison at reducing drug-related crime and at contending with social ills like homelessness, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and the overburdening of the health care and foster care systems.
Dr. Rosenthal left Phoenix House as president and chief executive in 2007 and established the nonprofit Rosenthal Center for Addiction Studies.
Mitchell Stephen Rosenthal, the grandson of immigrants from Eastern Europe, was born on June 12, 1935, in Brooklyn to Abner and Adele Rosenthal. Mitch’s father, grandfather and two of his uncles were general practitioners.
Raised in Flushing, Queens, he graduated from Jamaica High School; earned a bachelor’s degree in 1956 from Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., where he majored in biology and minored in psychology; and received a medical degree from what is now the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn in 1960.
Dr. Rosenthal’s first marriage, to Ellen Slosberg Nagy, ended in divorce. He married Dr. Simms, a psychotherapist, in 1990. In addition to her, he is survived by three children from his first marriage, David Rosenthal, Claudia Plepler and Alexis Proceller; and seven grandchildren.
Dr. Rosenthal’s vision of treatment through what he called “dynamic analytic psychiatry” in group therapy, rather than in traditional one-on-one psychotherapy, was inspired by the California-based drug treatment and self-help group Synanon. He learned its techniques through observation and participation, and he applied them while serving in Navy hospitals on Staten Island and in Oakland, Calif., in the mid-1960s.
He was struck by the way veterans returning from the Vietnam War with drug and alcohol problems rarely received treatment before being dishonorably discharged. After going through Synanon’s group-therapy boot camp, he said, nearly two-thirds were able to return to active duty. (By the 1970s, however, Synanon had become an insular, cultlike enterprise.)
Hired by Mayor John V. Lindsay’s administration, Dr. Rosenthal was eventually elevated to deputy commissioner for rehabilitation at New York City’s Addiction Services Agency. He established Phoenix House while in that job, then spun it off as a private nonprofit.
“People who come into Phoenix House are essentially strangers to themselves,” he told Lifestyles magazine in 2009. “We give them the support they need to share their destructive secrets, to shed their guilt, to purge their rage, and to unlock their potential.”
“This,” he added, “is change for life.”
Such change could be wrenching, he acknowledged, which he said was one of the reasons he had chosen to specialize in psychiatry.
“You want to figure out your own demons and figure out your own insecurities,” he said in an oral history interview in 2014. He recognized that talking in frank, personal terms to a group of strangers could be intimidating, he said, as he had learned through his experience with Synanon.
“I had come from a very private family, especially on my mother’s side,” he said, “who didn’t want to talk about the fact that they had a cold.”