William O’Brien, Drug Treatment Advocate and Entrepreneur, Dies at 90

Edited by Paul Alexander

Last updated October 31, 2014

In a field where death is both frequent and tragic, we now mourn the loss of Monsignor William O’Brien, a leader in drug treatment and advocacy.

Having lived a fulfilled 90 years here on earth, Msgr. O’Brien built his legacy through helping others overcome the fierce and deadly challenges of substance abuse. He was inspired to make it part of his life’s mission to bring about positive change for those suffering from addiction when he met a young boy in 1957 who was addicted to drugs and found himself tied up in a murder case as a result. It was at that moment that he began putting together plans to open up his very own treatment center.

By 1963, Msgr. O’Brien and three other partners opened Daytop (Drug Addiction Yields to Persuasion) Treatment Residence in Staten Island. By 1966, he received a degree in psychotherapy from the University of Illinois.

From there, Daytop continued to grow, and within 20 years, it became known a major franchise nationwide. Msgr. O’Brien’s one Staten Island-based facility had rapidly spread to 28 facilities throughout five different states. At the time, his facilities were looked upon as leaders in the treatment of substance abuse and have continually been revered as such.

Msgr. O’Brien and those who worked at Daytop were known for implementing a strict and thorough treatment plan, where clients were expected to follow rules and regulations while attending daily group therapy sessions. Msgr. O’Brien was quoted as saying that his treatment approach at Daytop was “a very tough love, not a sympathetic love.” Like treatment centers of today, no one was ever forced to stay against their will.

This approach was copied by other facilities so much and so frequently that Daytop began to see a decline in clientele, as they were going to other treatment centers for care. However, despite the decline, Daytop continued (and continues) to serve the population of substance abusers nationwide.

Msgr. O’Brien became known as a revolutionary individual in the field of addiction treatment, and by 1990, 20/20 referred to him as “one of the world’s recognized experts in rehabilitating drug addicts.”

Some of his greatest accomplishments outside of Daytop included opening facilities in 66 other countries, becoming a founder of the World Federation of Therapeutic Communities and serving as an advocate in the fight against the war on drugs. In 1996, he was quoted as saying, “We’re in a fortress mode, building more and more prisons to handle the drug problem.” His intense passion for approaching addiction through therapeutic means as opposed to legal consequences was displayed well before the rest of the world had to chance to catch themselves up to speed in agreement.

On October 19, 2014, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York announced Msgr. O’Brien’s death to the world. He will be remembered not only for his work in the church, but also for his tireless and revolutionary efforts towards to proper treatment of substance abuse worldwide.


Article Reviewed by Paul Alexander

Paul AlexanderPaul Alexander is the founder and CEO of Northbound Treatment. He received his Certified Addiction Treatment Specialist training at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, CA, and was awarded Outstanding Alumni Service Award in 2002. Paul holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Criminology, Law and Society, Summa Cum Laude, from University of California, Irvine, and a Juris Doctorate degree from Loyola Law School of Los Angeles. He believes wholeheartedly in transformational leadership, organizational health and effective, fully integrated substance use disorder treatment.