Hard Talk

Sequential intercept model is really a ‘no-intercept model’

Ultimately, psychiatrists must take responsibility for complex patients.


In legal settings, the “sequential intercept model” for targeting people involved in the criminal justice system with mental illness has been proposed as an improvement for the status quo.

Dr. Nicolas Badre, a forensic psychiatrist in San Diego

Dr. Nicolas Badre

The model intends to divert individuals with mental illnesses at any one of five described stages in their journey through the legal system. In the first stage, a patient may be provided enough care in the community to never enter the criminal system. If that works, the patient may be diverted by first responders out of the legal system and back into treatment. Sequentially, throughout the remaining stages, the patient can be diverted by an attorney, the court, a presentencing correctional facility, the sentencing judge, a postsentencing correctional facility, or probation. The model rightfully encourages anyone in the continuum of care to take ownership of a situation and intervene.

I applaud the model for encouraging all participants to intervene in changing the course of our most challenging patients. However, I am reminded of the complexity of large systems trying to change. In practice, what I have seen is a series of half-hearted recommendations: Emergency responders who consider their role finished after giving a patient the number of the suicide hotline, attorneys who are satisfied by giving their clients an outdated list of community mental health clinics, judges who interpret their recommendations for treatment as a fait accompli, and correctional facilities that release patients with an absurdly short supply of medications and the address of an emergency room. I worry that by creating a model encouraging all to participate, we have just absolved ones who make any effort, even if inadequate.

In some ways, the sequential intercept model has similarities with modern mental health treatment teams. In many settings, a treatment team includes a series of providers who are sequentially involved in the life of a patient. A team can include a psychiatrist for psychopharmacology; a neuropsychologist for psychological testing; a social worker for psychotherapeutic strategies; another social worker to assist in obtaining social assistance; an addiction counselor for substance use disorder; another psychiatrist who monitors the administration of a single medication, like ketamine; and a pharmacist who approves the medication regimen. That’s several providers for the treatment of one patient.

As a forensic psychiatrist, I am often asked to review treatment plans of other providers. I am asked to comment on the appropriate nature of a given treatment. Often, insurance companies want to review the continued need for treatment or whether any treatment is warranted at all. Sometimes, employers want to review a treatment plan to ensure the safety of their employees. At times, courts will ask for a review and expectations from treatment of a defendant to assist in sentencing determinations. However, I have not yet been asked by anyone if the amount of care a patient is obtaining is too fragmented and without any clear leadership.

In our endless pursuit of medicalization and standardization of mental health, we have, especially in large systems, created specialization silos for the care of our patients. Many, if not most psychiatrists, do not participate in any psychotherapy; social workers and psychologists do not prescribe (for the most part); many substance abuse counselors only address sobriety and not other primary mental illness factors; and pharmacists cannot diagnose nor are they trained in psychosocial approaches. In many ways, we have defined participants not by what they do, but what they don’t do.

One also can be saddened by the enormous logistical complexity imposed on patients required to make numerous appointments, which can deprive them of time for recovery. However, my bigger concern is that the multiplicity of providers also permits the dissolution of accountability. In my experience, those large teams have an ability to deflect responsibility in ways that are unmatched by any single provider who cannot rely on putting the fault on someone else.

Sadly and ironically, those two parallel paradigms of mental illness and criminal care impose those problems on each other by averting any attempt at interception, a “no-intercept model.” Mental health programs will deny clients involved in the criminal justice system for requiring too much treatment, too little treatment, for lack of availability of one of the necessary providers, for requiring substance use treatment, or simply for being part of the criminal justice system. Accordingly, the legal system will fail to accept recommendations by mental health providers that mental health treatment is not paramount at this time and that the defendant would be better served by addressing his criminogenic risk factors. In response, the multitude of participants in the legal system will point to the mental health system for all answers.

Contrary to many if not most problems, I do not think that the solution lies somewhere in the middle, as this would require the five stages of the legal system to compromise with the nine hypothetical participants of the mental health system. I think that the solution lies in a resurgence of personal accountability and responsibility. For our part, as psychiatrists, we must accept that we are ultimately responsible for all levels of care. As a field, we are also responsible for educating the public and the legal system of our role and limitations in providing care as well as being available for providing such care. Correspondingly, the legal system is responsible for putting an adequate effort into diverting patients and having or obtaining adequate understanding of available and appropriate care for their defendants.

Dr. Badre is a forensic psychiatrist in San Diego and an expert in correctional mental health. He holds teaching positions at the University of California, San Diego, and the University of San Diego. He teaches medical education, psychopharmacology, ethics in psychiatry, and correctional care. Among his writings is chapter 7 in the new book “Critical Psychiatry: Controversies and Clinical Implications” (Springer, 2019).

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