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Future lawyer explores patients’ rights issues

[1]Amanda Levine’s search started with questioning an assumption: Were people who had been institutionalized for mental illness deinstitutionalized because of increasing awareness and concern for their rights and preferences?

It’s the sort of question academic researchers tackle all the time, fodder for graduate students and professors.

Levine is neither. She’s an undergraduate; a Binghamton University senior majoring in philosophy, politics and law. She’s also an undergraduate fellow with the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH).

“The history of medicine is fascinating,” says Levine, 21, of Baldwin, N.Y. Her curiosity started with a simple question in a history seminar in the spring of 2012.

Using a $300 stipend, Levine began accessing primary sources, specifically public health reports and legal documents. She focused her work on the period from 1965 to 1970, right about the time when patients’ rights became an increasing concern.

What did she find? “Patient rights were not actively sought at all,” Levine says. The efficacy of treatment was the primary concern in whether to deinstitutionalize a patient.

She presented her findings last fall in a talk titled “Patient Rights and the Mentally Ill: Deinstitutionalization in the Late 1960s.” She was the only undergraduate to present findings to IASH.

“She’s setting her work off against the traditional viewpoint,” says Gerald Kutcher, professor of history and Levine’s adviser. “For an undergraduate, that’s impressive.”

Although the work is preliminary, it has the potential for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. Seeking primary sources and in-depth analysis takes it beyond the standard undergraduate report, he says. “She has the ability to look at material and understand it in a sophisticated way,” Kutcher says.

Levine is the first to understand the limits of her work. She looked at one five-year period. A decade later, the process of deciding when and how to deinstitutionalize a patient was different. A patient’s wishes began to outweigh treatment concerns.

And she looked solely at records on individual cases. She hasn’t yet factored social, economic and political factors into evolving policies on deinstitutionalization. Many issues played into the decisions that closed and consolidated psychiatric facilities across the nation into a fraction of their numbers from the 1950s. One of the survivors is the Binghamton Psychiatric Center, which Levine recently visited for the first time.

Levine is interested in pursuing the topic after she gets her degree, but research isn’t her career goal. She’s looking to become a lawyer, specializing in health law.

“Working on a hospital ethics board will be ideal,” Levine says. “It’s going to continue to become more and more strict.”

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