Dr. Mitchell Rosenthal, Phoenix House Founder, Dies at 87

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

He was struck by the way veterans returning from the Vietnam War with drug and alcohol problems rarely received treatment 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 an insular, cultlike enterprise.)

Hired by Mayor John V. Lindsay’s administration, Dr. Rosenthal was eventually elevated to deputy commissioner for rehabilitation at New York City’s Addiction Services Agency. He established Phoenix House while in that job, then spun it off as a private nonprofit.

“People who come into Phoenix House are essentially strangers to themselves,” he told Lifestyles magazine in 2009. “We give them the support they need to share their destructive secrets, to shed their guilt, to purge their rage, and to unlock their potential.”

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

Such change could be wrenching, he acknowledged, which he said was one of the reasons he had chosen to specialize in psychiatry.

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