Dr. Mitchell Rosenthal, founder of Phoenix House, dies at the age of 87

Raised in Flushing, Queens, he graduated from Jamaica High School; received his bachelor’s degree from Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., in 1956, 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 analytical psychiatry” in group therapy, rather than traditional individual psychotherapy, was inspired by the California-based drug treatment and support group Synanon. He learned his techniques through observation and participation and applied them in the mid-1960s while serving in Navy hospitals on Staten Island and in Oakland, California.

He was struck by how veterans returning from the Vietnam War with drug and alcohol problems were rarely treated 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 a closed-off, cult-like company.)

Employed by the administration of Mayor John V. Lindsay, Dr. Rosenthal was eventually appointed Deputy Commissioner of Rehabilitation for the New York City Drugs and Drug Administration. During this time he founded Phoenix House and then spun it off as a private non-profit organization.

“People who come into the Phoenix House are essentially strangers to themselves,” he told Lifestyles magazine in 2009. .”

“That,” he added, “is change for life.”

Such a change can be painful, he acknowledged, which he believes is one of the reasons he chose to specialize in psychiatry.

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