Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Terry Kupers

Kupers“I go inside the jails and prisons as an expert witness doing investigations and see the awful things happening: the large number of people who have mental illnesses, the racial disparities, the use of solitary confinement, the lack of medical care, the sexual abuse perpetrated by prison staff, and the brutality and torture that goes on,” explained Dr. Terry Kupers, Professor Emeritus in the Wright Institute’s Clinical Psychology Program. “Then I come out, testify about it in court, and announce it to the public, opening doors for people to see into those dark areas they don’t normally see.” Through his work, Dr. Kupers has opened the eyes of many and his research and testimony have led to significant changes in the carceral system.

Dr. Kupers was born in Philadelphia during the Second World War. His parents lived in Los Angeles for a few years prior to his birth and his older brother and sister were born there, but things changed when his father joined the Army Air Force. “He was assigned to fly out of London with the Royal Air Force, so he took my mother and siblings back to Philadelphia to live with her people while he went to the war,” he recalled. A flight surgeon in the RAF, his father was shot down over Northern France, but was rescued by Resistance fighters and smuggled back to London. When his father returned from the war, the family moved back to Los Angeles where they already had a home and his father had an established medical practice. “So that’s where I grew up,” Dr. Kupers shared, “very far from my extended family and their Jewish shtetl in Philadelphia.” His mother was trained as a nurse, but spent part of his childhood at home raising Dr. Kupers and his siblings. He attended public schools in Los Angeles, excelling both academically and athletically. In 1960, he graduated from Fairfax High School, where he was a member of the Ephebians honor society.

For his undergraduate studies, Dr. Kupers applied and was accepted to Stanford University. He knew he planned to study medicine, but instead of majoring in Biology like most pre-med students, he chose to study Psychology. “At the time, I did not know I was going to be a psychiatrist, but I did not want to major in a subject inside of medicine,” Dr. Kupers recalled. “I wanted something broader, so I picked psychology.” In 1964, he graduated from Stanford, earning a BA with distinction in Psychology.

After graduating from Stanford, Dr. Kupers enrolled in the UCLA School of Medicine with the initial goal of becoming a primary care physician. During his second or third year, he began feeling disconnected and depressed, which prompted a reevaluation of his career aspirations. “I discovered I didn't really like medicine enough,” he laughed. “I just didn't want to spend the rest of my life examining people physically and reading medical journals; I was more interested in the psychological aspects of medicine.” Midway through medical school, Dr. Kupers made the decision to shift his focus to psychiatry, inspired by an exceptional professor who ignited his passion for the field, and it became clear he had found his true calling. Dr. Kupers graduated from the UCLA School of Medicine in 1968, and spent the next year at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, NY, completing an internship with rotations in medicine, surgery, and pediatrics.

In the fall of 1969, Dr. Kupers began a three-year Psychiatry Residency at UCLA. He spent the final year of his residency at the Tavistock Institute in England, where he studied object relations theory and brief therapy. Already a committed social justice advocate, he continually worked on integrating the psychological and the social, contributing as he did so to the field of Radical Therapy. Dr. Kupers then commenced a postdoctoral fellowship at UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute, focused on Social and Community Psychiatry. The community mental health movement was in full swing at the time and Dr. Kupers was drawn to its aims. “We set up clinics where we would treat everyone, regardless of their ability to pay,” he recalled. “The population was very diverse, unlike the psychoanalytic clientele, so that was very attractive to me.” For two years, he attended UCLA half-time and practiced psychiatry in the community simultaneously. “​​I had a fascination with psychoanalytic theory and practical interest in community mental health,” he reflected. “I felt like I was taking my psychoanalytic training into a different arena and I needed to translate the psychoanalytic theory into practical interventions in a community mental health center.” Meanwhile, he played a role in defunding the UCLA Violence Center, a research project supposedly aimed at preventing violence that in effect increased police surveillance and repression in inner city neighborhoods. Dr. Kupers earned his Masters in Social Psychiatry from UCLA at the conclusion of his fellowship.

Upon completion of his studies at UCLA, Dr. Kupers was presented with a fork in the road which would shape the future trajectory of his career. “The deal I was offered was, if I would open a practice in Beverly Hills or West Los Angeles, pay a training analyst to analyze me, and join the institute, they would send me all the patients I could ever want,” he explained. “I didn’t like that because 95% of the psychiatrists in LA practiced on the west side and I was very committed to social justice.” He rejected the offer, but still opened his own private practice in 1972 in an effort to focus on his interest in psychoanalytic therapy, which was difficult to pursue in the public mental health sector. Dr. Kupers charged his clients on a sliding scale in an effort to make his services accessible to more people. “I saw a lot of people, so I could do what I wanted,” he shared. “Meanwhile, I always had another job - first in the public sector, then at the Wright Institute.” Dr. Kupers maintained his practice until he retired from his office practice in 2017.

In addition to his private practice, Dr. Kupers sought roles in community mental health organizations whose missions aligned with his values. From 1974-1977, Dr. Kupers was a Staff Psychiatrist and Co-Director of the outpatient department at the Charles Drew Postgraduate Medical School, which was connected to Martin Luther King, Jr. Hospital in Los Angeles. “There was a rebellion in Watts in 1965 and, after that, the Black professionals in the community advocated for a hospital local to Watts,” he recalled. “Before then, if you were shot in Watts, you had about 10 miles to go to get to the hospital and a lot of people died, so they opened a hospital.” The hospital's psychiatry department was comprised of eight Black psychiatrists when Dr. Kupers joined the team. He described this experience as a “whole new level of education,” where he learned to take his psychoanalytic theory and apply it to situations influenced by racism and other biases. “I had a wonderful supervisor who was a Black psychoanalyst,” Dr. Kupers noted. “We had many very educational interactions where I learned about race relations and how a white professional can interact in a Black community.”

Dr. Kupers was a Staff Psychiatrist and Co-Director of the Partial Hospital at Richmond Community Mental Health Center in Contra Costa County from 1979-1981. It was a day treatment program designed for people being released from the hospital after a psychotic or manic episode. “One of the things we believed was, if you do psychodynamic therapy with people with schizophrenia, they can get a lot better,” he shared. “The idea was to launch them into a life made more full by the experience of a psychotic episode and treatment, so they could go on to lead an enriched life.” The three-month program used a variety of treatments including psychodrama, group therapy, family therapy, and equestrian therapy. Unfortunately, Dr. Kupers soon discovered their model was not entirely successful. “R. D. Laing was telling us the schizophrenic episode was actually a visionary experience which could enlarge your scope and make you a much larger person after you went through it, and people would integrate the experience and go on in life and be much better off,” he explained. “Well, that's not true. Schizophrenia is an illness typically characterized by recurrent psychotic episodes, so the intensification of treatment at the front end of the schizophrenic experience was not entirely useful.” This realization led Dr. Kupers to advocate for less-intense, more long-term interventions, recognizing their greater efficacy for patients dealing with schizophrenia.

In 1981, Dr. Kupers joined the faculty of the Wright Institute’s Clinical Psychology Program, which had a reputation for hiring progressive thinkers. “I was a radical activist along with being a clinician,” he reflected. “I valued expertise in clinical pursuits, but was also informed by a social analysis, for instance, about the effect of racism on people's lives, white people as well as people of color.” His writings at the time focused on integrating the social with the psychological and developing a more holistic analysis. If he taught in a medical school, Dr. Kupers knew he would be teaching topics like suicide prevention, managing a ward staff, administering medications, etc. and these topics just didn’t pique his interest. “What was interesting to me was integrating the social and the psychological, and the Wright institute, because of Nevitt Sanford and the aim to educate clinicians to society, was very receptive to that area of study and has been to this day,” he noted. “The Wright Institute has supported me in my social theory and radical activities as well as my clinical and forensic work.”

Over the years, Dr. Kupers has taught a variety of courses, both at the Wright Institute and at other graduate schools in Los Angeles and San Francisco. “I learn from and I am revitalized by students,” he shared. “Students come in with very exciting ideas and a lot of exuberance and my job is to teach them something about what we already know.” He enjoys teaching very much and considers it to be one leg of a three-legged stool. Dr. Kupers’s psychiatric practice, including his work in forensic psychiatry , form the first leg of the stool. “Writing is another leg of the stool,” he explained. “My thinking is that, if I have a solid idea and it's new, I have to be able to write about it and have it accepted in the intellectual world of psychiatry, then that validates my clinical practice.” Teaching is the third leg of the stool, serving as a check to his clinical work and writing. “If I have an idea of how to do therapy or how to think about the world, I should be able to present it to students and have them understand it and grow from it,” he reflected. “If that doesn't happen, I'm on the wrong path.” Dr. Kupers enjoys the constant feedback teaching affords him, recognizing the valuable role it plays in refining and evolving his perspective on various subjects.

Since the 1970s, Dr. Kupers has provided testimony in a variety of court cases on topics including prison conditions, sexual abuse, and the quality of mental health services inside correctional facilities. It was never his intention to become a forensic psychiatrist, but one choice he made in 1969 sent his career in a new direction:

“While I was in training, in the evenings and during days I could get away, I was also a physician for the Black Panther free clinic at 40th and Central in Los Angeles. It was called the Bunchy Carter Free Clinic after one of the Panthers who had been killed at UCLA. The Panthers owned the building where the clinic was - the clinic was downstairs and the Panthers lived and had their offices upstairs. They came to the clinic for medical treatment, so I was their doctor. A few days after Freddie Hampton was killed in Chicago in December 1969, COINTELPRO, the FBI inspired federal law enforcement collaboration, attacked the Panther office in the middle of the night. We were all called and we hurried down there because we were afraid they were just going to blow them away. They had bazookas. They had tanks. They had helicopters. They had snipers on the roofs all around. We were afraid they were just going to kill the Panthers, so a thousand or more people showed up at the Panther office at about three or four in the morning. They didn't kill the Panthers, but there was a shootout and, when the Panthers came out, they arrested them. They took the wounded people to the hospital, so I went to the hospital. There was a law in California that, if you got arrested, your doctor could come to the jail hospital and collaborate in the treatment, so I went to the jail hospital and I said I'm here to see my patients. They asked who and I gave them the names of the injured Panthers. They told me I couldn’t see them because they were under arrest and I said, ‘Yes, I can.’ There were lawyers there from the Lawyer’s Guild and the ACLU and they got me in and I saw them. They were being treated horribly - their IVs weren't running and there were three or four police for every Panther who was a patient. The police would hit them with their elbow right where they'd been shot and things like that. They were just nasty, so I came out and I spoke to the press about it at a press conference. A year later, the ACLU of Southern California sued LA County Jail for horrible treatment of prisoners, including lack of medical and mental health care. They came to me and asked me to be an expert and I said, ‘I don't know anything about jails and I don't do forensic psychiatry.’ They said, ‘That's okay. This is a new kind of litigation. Nobody knows how to do this, but we want you to go back in there and do for everybody what you did for the Panthers,’ which was to expose the abuse, so I did. That was the Rutherford vs. Pitchess case. It was a first of its kind case, of prisoners suing a county because the jail had unconstitutionally inadequate conditions and mental health care. I immediately became an expert on that because, in forensic psychiatry, if you testify in one prominent case, people doing similar cases will call you. So I accidentally became a forensic psychiatrist.”

Dr. Kupers has been involved with forensic cases since the seventies. Another area he often testified on was the sexual abuse of women prisoners by male custody staff as he considered it to be a particularly horrific human rights abuse. After his children grew up and left home, Dr. Kupers began accepting requests for his expert testimony from all over the country. “I did a lot of traveling and I participated as a psychiatric expert in some very big lawsuits around jails and prisons and establishing standards for what is constitutional,” he shared. “I was working with unbelievably committed people who were interested in fixing what was wrong with the jails and prisons, which was very exciting and rewarding work.”

In addition to testifying in class action lawsuits, Dr. Kupers consulted to human and civil rights campaigns, including those of Human Rights Watch and Disability Rights California. Over the years, he has done consulting work for various mental health centers and social rehabilitation programs in his community. “By the early eighties, I decided I didn't want to have a salaried job in a community mental health center anymore because the psychiatrist's role was getting narrower and narrower,” he recalled. “We were just prescribing medications for people we knew less and less well, but I wanted time to do a full evaluation before prescribing.” Through his ongoing consulting work, Dr. Kupers found a unique avenue to contribute to the public sector without committing to a full-time role in community mental health.

Dr. Kupers has an impressive literary legacy, having authored five books, edited another two, and written close to one hundred articles and book chapters. “When I get ready to move on to another field, I write a book about it,” he laughed. “Public Therapy was my first book and one of the most important because it was my attempt at bringing psychoanalytic and psychodynamic theory into the public mental health sector.” That book was very helpful to a generation of people in the field of community mental health. His second book, Ending Therapy, focused on psychoanalytic theory and his third book, Revisioning Men's Lives, addressed gender theory from a pro-feminist male perspective. “There was a very active pro-feminist, anti-racist and anti-homophobic men's movement in the eighties trying to reverse patriarchy,” he explained, “and my book contributed to that movement.”

Kupers BookThe two most recent books Dr. Kupers has published, Prison Madness and Solitary, reflect his focus and expertise in mental health and human rights in the carceral system, especially relating to solitary confinement. For one forensic case, DAI v. NY OMH, Dr. Kupers interviewed 300 prisoners in preparation for his testimony. Although he couldn’t write about their specific stories, he could write about their trauma, the abuse they endured while incarcerated, and the need for mental health care. “It was always my position that prisoners are entitled to the same standard of care as people in the community,” he reflected. “The prison mental health programs fell short and therefore those with mental illness typically went to solitary confinement in American jails and prisons.” In the 1980s, there was a severe overcrowding problem in the prison system due to the three strikes law and enhanced sentencing. “Overcrowding correlates with violence, mental health breakdown, suicide, and physical illness, so I testified and recommended that, instead of crowding the prisons, they should release a lot of people from prison who don't need to be there and increase rehabilitation programs,” he recalled. “The authorities said I was an idealist and they had a much better answer, which was to throw the ‘worst of the worst’ into solitary confinement and keep them there.” Dr. Kupers, driven by a commitment to expose the racial dynamics and injustices he has witnessed behind bars, harnessed his expertise to shed light on these issues in his last two books.

The field of psychiatry has changed dramatically since Dr. Kupers earned his degree, to the point where he has retired from office-based clinical psychiatry. “Psychiatrists have been isolated as the experts on physical modalities like electric shock, transcranial magnetic stimulation, psychopharmacology, and brain studies,” he explained. “All of those are very interesting, but I did not want to spend all of my time there.” He’s seen major advances in the field since he began his work, but noted that treatment still isn’t distributed fairly and many social safety net programs in place earlier in his career have been down-funded or entirely eliminated. “It's still the case that affluent people get talk therapy, which they pay for, and low income people get pills,” he lamented. “We have the tools to help people a lot better now than at the beginning of my career, but we don't have the social arrangements to distribute those services fairly to the population.”

Over the years, Dr. Kupers has earned many honors, from being named a Distinguished Life Fellow by the American Psychiatric Association to earning the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Despite all of his accolades, the recognition he’s most proud of isn’t particularly impressive on paper, unless you know the story behind it:

“In 2011 and 2013, there were hunger strikes in the California prisons initiated by prisoners in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison. Thousands of people outside in the streets demonstrated in support of the hunger strikes of the several hundred prisoners striking at Pelican Bay. Then 6,000 prisoners around the state also went on hunger strike in solidarity with the hunger strikers at Pelican Bay. They wanted some way to connect with the movement outside - the families of people in solitary confinement, the activists in the community, and legislators - so they set up a mediation committee, which would mediate with the Department of Corrections over the demands of the hunger strikers. They went to the prisoners and told them to make a list of people who they would accept on the mediation committee and they went to the outside organizers and families and said make a list of people you would accept. I was the only person on both lists. That is the highest honor of my life.”

Kupers HobbyIn the midst of his demanding schedule, Dr. Kupers makes sure to set aside time for his family. He treasures the time he spends with his life partner, children and grandchildren, who he especially enjoys playing sports with. “I'm a successful basketball coach in the 6 to 12 year old range,” he laughed. “When they get to be about 12, they tell me they don’t need my help anymore, now they have a ‘real’ coach, so that's the height of my athletic endeavors.” Dr. Kupers also has several other hobbies, including hiking, traveling, and playing the flute in local jazz groups.

Looking ahead, Dr. Kupers feels we’re at a tipping point as a society and he’s optimistic about the future. Since the early eighties, public services of all kinds have been steadily defunded in this country, from mental health to education. “I think we're watching a turn in the other direction - to reinstate the aspiration to level the playing field, to reduce taxes for the poor and increase them for the rich,” he explained. “That's not a very radical idea, but at least it begins to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor. We're seeing a turnaround and I’m hopeful we're going to see a new renaissance, like in the thirties with the New Deal or the sixties with Black Power and the New Left, and that's a very exciting time for us to make our contributions.”