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Scott Starson

Imprisoned physicist allowed to refuse medication

Scott Starson

A brilliant physicist who has spent four years in a pyschiatric institution rather than submit to forcible medication has won his bid to refuse drug treatment.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled 6-3 on Friday that an Ontario board that determines the capacity of mentally ill people overstepped its powers when it ordered that Scott Starson be treated without his consent.

The court said the board strayed into forbidden terrain by substituting its own view of what was best for Mr. Starson. It said Mr. Starson was clearly aware that he was ill when he refused treatment.

"The board's reasons indicate that it strayed from its legislative mandate, which was to adjudicate solely upon the patient's capacity," Mr. Justice Jack Major wrote for the majority.

"The wisdom of the respondent's treatment decision is irrelevant to that determination. The Board improperly allowed its conception of the respondent's best interests to influence its finding on capacity."

The court largely confined itself to the facts of Mr. Starson's case, making no reverberating pronouncements on issues such as whether the case involved any unconstitutional elements.

In an interview several weeks ago, Mr. Starson moved from one topic to another in an unconnected manner.

"Your Supreme Court - and I mean no disrespect by this - is Little League," he said at one point. "The Supreme Court does not have solutions. They report to me."

Mr. Starson's life reads like a blended plot summary from the films A Beautiful Mind and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. While he concedes a history of mental troubles, he had remained adamant that being locked up for life is preferable to being medicated by psychiatrists intent on "improving" his life.

He contends that the medication he has been given in the past to combat his bipolar condition slows his thinking, dulls his inspiration and makes him appear disoriented.

A co-author of several articles on physics published in scholarly journals, he is accepted as a peer by many physicists who have written endorsements of his abilities and corresponded with him.

Mr. Starson earned degrees in engineering and computer programming, but his passion for physics led him into regular contact with professors in Toronto and the United States.

Several physicists have also written testimonials to Mr. Starson's ability.

"Our species is making every effort possible to communicate with your species and explain a situation to you," Mr. Starson said in the interview. "The Supreme Court of Canada certainly has no choice. They have been operating illegally. These are not my appeals. They are your appeals."

Anita Szigeti, a lawyer appointed to give arguments as a "friend of the court," said recently that an adverse ruling would likely have made it impossible for anyone to refuse treatment.

On the other hand, she said, a positive ruling "would be a victory for all patients - past and future - who may want to retain control over their bodies."

Mr. Starson's mother does not agree. She views her son as a man with a marvellous future that can never be realized unless he is medicated.

"He has absolutely no insight into his situation," she said recently. "He can rationalize anything. He always insists that he isn't crazy, you are."

While Mr. Starson has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals for years, this stint is by far the longest. It commenced after his arrest for threatening a neighbour in 1998.

(While Mr. Starson has issued threats regularly over the years, his only act of violence was when he unsuccessfully fought off psychiatric nurses injecting him with antipsychotic medication after his arrest.)

After a judge ruled at his 1998 trial that he was not criminally responsible for uttering death threats, Mr. Starson was declared incapable of consenting to treatment and was sent to Penetanguishene.

He appealed unsuccessfully to the Ontario Consent and Capacity Board a year later. The board asserted that Mr. Starson's life had been devastated by his disorder: "The patient's denial is almost total."

When Mr. Starson appealed again, the tide turned in his favour. Madam Justice Anne Molloy of the Ontario Superior Court overturned the board's decision, ruling that it had been based on unacceptable conjecture and subjectivity.

The Ontario Court of Appeal upheld her ruling.

The pivotal question for the Supreme Court was whether Mr. Starson understands his disorder enough to make rational decisions concerning treatment.

To Mr. Starson, it presented a classic Catch-22. By admitting to a serious illness, he left himself open to being treated against his will. But denying it allowed psychiatrists to conclude that he lacked insight - enabling them to treat him forcibly.

"Being 'normal' would be worse than death for me, because I have always considered normal to be a term so boring it would be like death," he remarked bitterly during one hearing.


Brilliant man in an asylum fights doctors to top court

Physics expert with bipolar disorder tells judges he'd rather stay locked up for life than be forced to take medication

Scott Starson did not appear the least bit nervous, despite an impending ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada on whether psychiatrists can subdue and forcibly medicate him.

"Your Supreme Court -- and I mean no disrespect by this -- is Little League," he said by telephone from the Penetanguishene Mental Health Centre, where he has lived for the past four years. "The Supreme Court does not have solutions. They report to me."

It was not the sort of statement litigants normally make about judges who can alter their lives in an instant. But then, Mr. Starson is not your average litigant. His life reads like a blended plot summary from the films A Beautiful Mind and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

Mr. Starson concedes that he has a history of mental troubles. He says that he prefers being locked up for life rather than be medicated by psychiatrists intent on "improving" his life.

A co-author of several articles on physics published in scholarly journals, he is accepted as a peer by many physicists who have written endorsements of his abilities and corresponded with him.

Mr. Starson earned degrees in engineering and computer programming, but his passion for physics led him into regular contact with professors in Toronto and the United States.

After examining a handful of Mr. Starson's journal articles and papers, psychiatrist Ian Swayze said they appear to be "legit." Several physicists have also written testimonials to Mr. Starson's ability. Pierre Noyes, dean of physics at Stanford University, said he considers Mr. Starson's ideas to be well ahead of his time.

"I think it is beyond challenge to say that intellectually, the potential Mr. Starson has is extraordinary," Dr. Swayze testified during one proceeding. "His imagination is obviously quite something, and has been the genesis of some brilliant ideas."

Mr. Starson is adamant that forcible medication would slow his thinking, dull his inspiration and make him appear disoriented.

"Our species is making every effort possible to communicate with your species and explain a situation to you," he said in articulate, yet frequently disconnected, bursts of speech. "Your Supreme Court of Canada certainly has no choice. They have been operating illegally. These are not my appeals. They are your appeals."

The Starson case attracted little notice when it was argued in the Supreme Court recently, yet it ranks high among those cases that the judges will decide this year. To some mental-health advocates, its ramifications extend beyond the thousands of psychiatric-treatment orders issued each year.

"The significance of this ruling relates to our right to refuse any kind of treatment," said Anita Szigeti, a lawyer appointed by the court to provide additional legal arguments. "It involves safeguarding the rights of capable individuals to refuse all kinds of medication intervention, even when they appear to be in our best interest."

An adverse ruling likely would make it impossible for anyone to refuse treatment, Ms. Szigeti said. On the other hand, she said, a positive ruling "would be a victory for all patients -- past and future -- who may want to retain control over their bodies."

Psychiatrists do not see it that way. They say that Mr. Starson suffers from a serious bipolar condition that will worsen, preventing him from leading a normal life and realizing his true brilliance.

Mr. Starson's mother endorsed the doctors. She recalled in an interview how her son was very popular, with a marvellous future.

"I hope the Supreme Court decides he should be medicated, otherwise he will remain a dribbling idiot," she said. "He has absolutely no insight into his situation. He can rationalize anything. He always insists that he isn't crazy -- you are."

While Mr. Starson has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals for years, this stint is by far the longest. It commenced after his arrest for threatening a neighbour in 1998. (While Mr. Starson has issued threats regularly over the years, his only act of violence was when he unsuccessfully fought off psychiatric nurses who were injecting him with antipsychotic medication after his arrest.)

"You have an individual here with offences that are extremely low on the totem pole," Ms. Szigeti said. "There is no indication of violence or criminal record."

The pivotal question for the court is whether Mr. Starson understands his disorder enough to make rational treatment decisions.

To Mr. Starson, this presents a classic Catch-22: If he admits to a serious illness, it opens him to being treated against his will. But if he denies it, psychiatrists can conclude that he lacks insight and forcibly treat him.

"Being 'normal' would be worse than death for me, because I have always considered normal to be a term so boring it would be like death," he remarked bitterly during one hearing.

After a judge ruled at his 1998 trial that he was not criminally responsible for uttering death threats, Mr. Starson was declared incapable of consenting to treatment and sent to Penetanguishene.

He appealed unsuccessfully to the Ontario Consent and Capacity Board a year later. The board asserted that Mr. Starson's life had been devastated by his disorder: "The patient's denial is almost total."

When Mr. Starson appealed again, the tide turned in his favour. Madam Justice Anne Molloy of the Ontario Superior Court overturned the board's decision, ruling that it had been based on unacceptable conjecture and subjectivity.

The Ontario Court of Appeal upheld her ruling. Now the Supreme Court will decide the conditions under which a person may refuse treatment. Can someone such as Mr. Starson make a treatment decision that professionals view as harmful or irrational?

Mr. Starson, who repeatedly insisted that he be called "Professor Starson" and that the word "if" not be used in questioning him, said he is confident that he will prevail.

Breaking off a train of thought involving moon-walking astronauts, his claim to have invented the modular telephone and his plans for a team of 200 lawyers scattered worldwide, Mr. Starson addressed his case:

"Here, I'm basically dealing with the bottom of your species," he said. "Your species deals with force so much. Force is not the way science operates. And the worst religion on the planet is psychiatry."


Forced drugging case goes to top court

Genius physicist's fight to decline anti-psychotic drugs goes to top court

The Supreme Court of Canada agreed Thursday to hear the legal battle involving science savant Scott Starson and the Toronto doctors who want to forcibly drug him.

With no formal training, Starson is "an extraordinarily intelligent man" who has been accepted as a peer by some of the world's leading physicists, says a high court summary of the case.

Starson has written for scholarly journals and co-authored an article with Pierre Noyes, a physics professor at Stanford University and the director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.

Questions of time measurement, anti-gravity and the theory of relativity are among his specialties.

But mental problems since 1985 have led to legal troubles and several stints in psychiatric wards.

Starson was admitted in 1998 to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto after being found not criminally responsible on two charges of uttering death threats.

During his stay, psychiatrist Paul Posner -- who accused Starson of threatening to kill him -- proposed Starson undergo invasive treatment with anti-psychotic drugs. The first phase would be a terrible ordeal that would require physical restraints, his doctors acknowledged.

But they believed the treatment was necessary to regulate Starson's behaviour to the point where he might consider taking new anti-psychotic drugs.

Diagnosed with bipolar disorder and manic behaviour, Starson had for years refused medications because they dulled his mind.

Posner's goal was to slow Starson's racing thought processes to a "normal level . . . without psychosis."

But Starson's evidence before a medical review board was that such an outcome would be "worse than death" for him because he thinks "normal" is so boring. He maintained that psychotherapy alone would help him control his behavioural outbursts.

Forced drugging in the past had always meant Starson had to work his way back up the academic ladder, he added.

Starson's psychiatrist and Ian Swayze, a physician, appealed the case to the high court. They won a ruling from the independent Ontario Consent and Capacity Review Board, made up of psychiatrists, lawyers and citizens, that Starson was incapable of recognizing the possible benefits of medication.

The board concluded Starson's condition would deteriorate over time and ruled him incapable of rationally refusing treatment.

That decision was overturned in 1999 by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.

The board's conclusion that Starson completely denied his mental condition was "a fundamental error," the judge said in a ruling that was upheld by the Ontario Court of Appeal.

It was also wrong for the board to accept unsubstantiated claims that Starson suffered delusions that others meant to harm him, the court said.

Removing Starson's ability to refuse drugs "has very serious consequences . . . and should only be made on cogent and compelling evidence," the judge stressed.

Yet the doctors failed to show how forced drugging ever really helped Starson, the court concluded.

The high court will be asked to consider whether the courts applied correct legal standards when they overruled the medical board.

In a Beautiful Mind, Russell Crowe played Nash, a mathematics genius plagued by schizophrenia. Drugs and shock treatment were forced on him after alarming behaviour that was considered threatening.

Forty-five years after he made an astonishing mathematical discovery while writing his doctorate, Nash won a Nobel prize for economics.


Man hailed by some as genius cannot be forcibly drugged for mental illness

"I'm devastated," Jeanne Stevens said from Toronto. "I don't think what they did was a humane judgment. "It's a disaster because they have destroyed his life and his dream."

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled 6-3 that a medical board was unreasonable and wrongly applied legal tests when it found Scott Starson incapable of deciding whether to accept treatment.

The gifted physicist, 47, says he'd rather stay locked up than take drugs that dull his mind and make his beloved research impossible.

Mental problems since 1985 led to legal troubles and several stints in psychiatric wards. Starson has refused anti-psychotic drugs, saying a return to "normal" would be "worse than death."

In an interview with The Canadian Press last year, he spoke compellingly of his research and ideas for inventions, from personal nuclear reactors to laser shavers.

Then he casually mentioned: "Pope John Paul II works for me now."

Starson also described his wedding plans to Joan Rivers, whom he has never met, and suggested that Pierre Elliott Trudeau was killed by an alien.

Starson was admitted five years ago to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto after being found not criminally responsible for threatening tenants in his apartment building.

He has never been charged for violence.

But until recent months he lived in a maximum-security room with a sliding steel door at the Penetanguishene Mental Health Centre.

He now resides in a medium-security forensic psychiatry unit at the Royal Ottawa Hospital.

"This decision was made by him when he was able to recognize that his condition required treatment," wrote Justice Jack Major for the court majority.

"He knew as well that the doctors were optimistic that new medication would improve his condition although (it) had been unsuccessful in the past. His choice, which he was entitled to make, was to remain as he was and to continue psychiatric therapy."

The majority judgment underscores individual rights and upholds two lower court rulings. It also cautions medical review boards against eschewing legal tests in favour of acting in the so-called "best interest" of patients.

Under Ontario law, a patient is presumed capable of making treatment decisions if they can understand relevant information and related consequences.

Such choices hold even if the patient's health later deteriorates - something Starson's doctors had hoped to change.

But the high court stressed that the onus is on doctors to show why treatment must be forced. And this wasn't convincingly done in Starson's case, Major wrote.

"Professor Starson values his ability to work as a physicist above all other factors. It is clear that he views the cure proposed by his physicians as more damaging than his disorder."

The three dissenting judges said ample evidence of Starson's psychosis justified the board's finding that he could not understand information related to treatment. Nor could he grasp the consequences of his refusal, wrote Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin.

The case is reminiscent of the John Forbes Nash story in the movie A Beautiful Mind. Nash, a Nobel prize-winning mathematician, battled schizophrenia and was forcibly treated.

Starson fell ill 20 years ago with schizo-affective disorder, a blend of schizophrenia and manic depression.

With no formal training, his gift for physics has been hailed by some of the world's leading experts.

Starson has written for scholarly journals and co-authored an article with Pierre Noyes, professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Stanford University's Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.

Starson hasn't published since 1995 but his intellect still inspires.

"He's certainly brilliant and some of the ideas he has may prove to be correct," Noyes said in an interview.

Questions of time measurement, anti-gravity and the theory of relativity are among Starson's specialties. He changed his last name from Schutzman in 1993 because, his mom says, "He actually thought he was the son of the stars."

Stevens is divorced from, but still close to, Starson's father.

She's convinced only forcible drugging can save her son's mental health. His condition is reviewed yearly to assess whether he can safely be released.

Starson hasn't spoken to her for more than a year, she said.

"The real Scott adores me."