Saturday, April 05, 2008

Guest Blogger Dr. Gerald Klee on Martin Luther King Jr., Riots and Psychiatric Hospitalizations

Oh, I so wanted to put this up yesterday! A day late, but....

Dr. Klee writes:

Today, April 4, 2008, is the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, which was immediately followed by widespread rioting in cities throughout the US . Baltimore was one of the cities most seriously affected by riots. This tragic situation provided an opportunity to study how admissions to public mental hospitals would be affected by such an emergency. The following 1998 article from The Maryland Psychiatrist summarizes a report by Klee and Gorwitz in Mental Hygiene, Vol. 54, No. 3, July, 1970. The findings, though limited are quite interesting and counterintuitive. For example, psychiatric admission fell during the days of crisis, while General hospitals reported increased admissions of patients with delirium tremens during the same period.

It occurs to me that this story may still be relevant. How well prepared is our present health care system to handle the effects of future civil emergencies.

Riots and Mental Illness

by Gerald D. Klee, M.D. Editor

The Maryland Psychiatrist [Spring/Summer 1998; Vol. 25 No. 1]

Psychiatric Hospital Admissions During The Baltimore Riots of 1968

How would a widespread civil emergency affect psychiatric hospital admissions? Would they go up or down? Would there be differences in demographic characteristics or diagnoses of those admitted? Our efforts to make predictions may be more successful if we have access to biostatistical data from previous events.

The Baltimore Riots of 1968 provided an unusual opportunity to conduct such a study in Maryland.1 Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April of 1968 there was rioting in more than 130 cities in the U.S. Baltimore was one of those most seriously affected, with widespread rioting, looting, and burning during the four-day period from Saturday, April 6th to Tuesday, April 9th. The National Guard was mobilized and a curfew was imposed in the city and adjacent areas. Many arrests were made. Daily life was affected in many ways for nearly all residents of the area, black, white, and others.

Events of this magnitude were bound to have many effects on mental health. Soon after the riots occurred, Klee and Gorwitz studied the effects they had on mental hospital admissions.1

Summary of Methodology and Findings

Our data were obtained from the Maryland Psychiatric Case Register, a ten year (1961-1971) joint project between the Biostatistics branch of the National Institute of Mental Health and the Maryland Department of Mental Hygiene. I was the psychiatric consultant to the project. There was an active psychiatric advisory board with representation from the Maryland Psychiatric Society (MPS). With the exception of office visits to private psychiatrists, all psychiatric admissions and discharges in the State were reported to the Case Register. In this investigation, admissions from Baltimore City to the three state hospitals serving the area were studied. In addition to the four days of the riots, periods of two weeks preceding and following the riots were examined. The number of Baltimore City admissions during the two-week period before the onset of the disorders and after their conclusion did not differ markedly from comparable figures for the prior year (1967). There were distinct differences in admission patterns during the four-day emergency, however, both as compared with the preceding and the following time periods and also with the comparable period of 1967.

At that time, Maryland ’s psychiatric hospitals had been experiencing a consistent increase in admissions of approximately 10% per year. (The revolving door was already in motion.) While this pattern continued during the pre and post riot periods, there was a sharp drop in admissions during the four days of crisis. In 1967's comparable Saturday-Tuesday period, there was a total of 65 admissions to these hospitals. Adding the noted 10% increase brought the number of expected admissions to 71, but the actual number of admissions dropped to 50. Further variations were found on the basis of race and diagnosis as well as place of residence. While there were 27 black admissions for the four-day period in 1967, this decreased to 18 in 1968. The comparable figures for white residents were 38 and 32. Thus, while a drop in admissions was noted for both races, this decline was more marked for blacks. In 1968, 31 of the 50 patient admissions were diagnosed as alcoholic as compared with only 26 of the 65 admissions in the prior year.1 Concurrently, there was a sharp decline in admissions with psychotic diagnoses (9 in 1968 versus 24 in 1967; statistically significant, using Chi-square test).

In 1967's comparable Saturday-Tuesday period, two thirds of the 65 admissions were from inner city areas where much of the rioting occurred in 1968. During the 4 days of disturbances, however, only half of the 50 admissions were from this part of the city. Some of the admissions were related to the civil disturbances. For example, some patients were picked up by the National Guard for violating curfew and were found to be mentally disturbed.

The data presented are one-dimensional and represent only a fraction of psychiatric episodes that may have occurred during this period. We have no information on the number of cases dealt with solely by the police and the jails. We did not examine short- and long-term mental health effects that did not result in treatment episodes.

While the sample in this study was small and not all of the comparisons were statistically significant, the results show interesting trends and are counterintuitive.


The study provides an interesting vignette of a major historical event in Maryland history. One would expect to observe changes in psychiatric admission rates during a widespread civil disturbance affecting nearly every aspect of life within the city. It is unlikely that anyone could have predicted a drop in admissions and the other changes that occurred. In hindsight, there are many possible explanations for the findings. For example, the rise in admissions of alcoholics was thought to be related to sudden curtailment of supplies of liquor as liquor stores and bars were closed. General hospitals reported increased admissions of patients with delirium tremens during the same period. Other civil emergencies may occur in the future. How well prepared will the psychiatric system be to deal with them?

1. Effects of the Baltimore Riots on Psychiatric Hospital Admissions; Gerald D. Klee, M.D. and Kurt Gorwitz, Sc.D.; Mental Hygiene, Vol. 54, No. 3, July, 1970