There she was again—a middle-aged woman, disheveled, crouching in the doorway of a closed store, grasping a notebook and pencil and scribbling. Intermittently, her eyes darted around and she would mumble, then go back to her notebook. Her eyes never met mine, but I wondered why she was not getting help with what was clearly a severe mental illness. I would see her in that same doorway several times a week for a couple of years before I left Berkeley, California, to become the first Chief Medical Officer of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). In doing so, I hoped to help people living in the grips of cruel disorders that affect one’s thinking, one’s reasoning, one’s ability to relate, and one’s ability to even understand that one suffers from a disorder that can be treated.
The opinions or assertions presented here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Psychiatric Times or its editorial board.
It is estimated that 10 million Americans (4.2%) are living with serious mental illness.1 However, only 68.5% of the most severely mentally ill will receive any type of mental health services. Whether those services are necessary and appropriate is not known. People with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, and other severe mental illnesses often complicated by substance misuse need effective, safe, evidence-based treatments as well as community resources where their clinical service needs can be met. The federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is composed of numerous agencies that address the health care needs of Americans, but only one agency within HHS is charged with addressing the needs of those with serious mental illness and that is SAMHSA.
SAMHSA is a small federal agency with a budget of roughly $3.7 billion per year2; much of that is in the form of block grants to states that are the arbiters of how the funds will be spent in support of the treatment of substance use and mental disorders. SAMHSA does, however, have the ability to focus on areas and issues that would improve the lot of individuals affected by severe mental illness. Unfortunately, SAMHSA does not address the treatment needs of the most vulnerable in our society. Rather, the unit within SAMHSA charged with addressing these disorders, the Center for Mental Health Services, chooses to focus on its own definition of “recovery,” which generally ignores the treatment of mental disorders, and, as a major initiative under “recovery” services, focuses on the development of a “peer workforce.”
There is a perceptible hostility toward psychiatric medicine: a resistance to addressing the treatment needs of those with serious mental illness and a questioning by some at SAMHSA as to whether mental disorders even exist—for example, is psychosis just a “different way of thinking for some experiencing stress?”
SAMHSA’s approach includes a focus on activities that don’t directly assist those who have serious mental illness. These include programs such as Mental Health First Aid, which seeks to teach people about the warning signs of mental illness in an attempt to provide support to those who are experiencing symptoms. Significant dollars are spent on hot lines for callers who may be experiencing suicidal thinking or who know someone who may be—yet suicide rates continue to climb in the US. SAMHSA supports integrated care programs that would bring some aspects of primary care to mental health services programs—worthy programs, but which do not address the treatment of serious mental illness. Programs that undertake the “re-education” of mental health practitioners who are assumed to be abusers of “consumer” rights and who dictate treatment to patients have been funded in the Recovery to Practice initiative.
Workforce issues focus in large part on the development of a “peer workforce.” This ideology purports that one can become a mental health professional by virtue of having a mental illness. Peer support can be an important resource for some, but it is not the answer to the treatment needs of the seriously mentally ill.
Lost in all of this are the real and pressing treatment needs of some of the most vulnerable in our society—those living with serious mental illness. Nowhere in SAMHSA’s strategic initiatives is psychiatric treatment of mental illness a priority. The occasional vague reference to treatment is no substitute for the urgent need for programs that address these issues.
Dr McCance-Katz was formerly Professor of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco; currently she is Chief Medical Officer for the Rhode Island Department of Behavioral Health, Developmental Disabilities, and Hospitals. She is also Chief Medical Officer and Acting Chief Executive Officer of the Eleanor Slater Hospital in Cranston, Rhode Island. She reports no conflicts of interest concerning the subject matter of this article.
1. US Department of Health and Human Services. Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Mental Health Findings. http://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUHmhfr2013/NSDUHmhfr2013.pdf. Accessed February 23, 2016.
2. HHS.gov. HHS FY 2016 Budget in Brief. http://www.hhs.gov/about/budget/budget-in-brief/samhsa/index.html. Accessed February 23, 2016.