Whether or not mental illness played a role in the crash of the Germanwings flight that killed 150, the importance of our own country’s having a sound and efficient mental-health policy cannot be denied. That’s why attention should be paid to a new report that shows the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the lead agency for coordinating America’s mental-health policies, is rotting from the inside.
The failure of SAMHSA to do its job could explain why, in spite of spending $130 billion on mental health, America has ten times as many persons with serious mental illness incarcerated as hospitalized, why 165,000 seriously mentally ill are homeless, and why headlines are full of reports of seriously mentally ill people who, as a result of lack of access to treatment, become involved in horrific acts of violence — like the mom who was found with her dead baby in a New York City restroom on Monday. The problem is that the federal agency responsible for delivering treatment to people with serious mental illness is instead using its money to “improve the mental health” of all Americans. The seriously ill are being told to fend for themselves.
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As a result of an investigation by Representative Tim Murphy (R., Pa.), SAMHSA’s failure to help the most seriously ill is now well documented. A General Accounting Office (GAO) report requested by Representative Murphy found that SAMHSA fails to coordinate national mental-health policy or evaluate results, and that most programs don’t serve the seriously ill. Speaker after speaker told committee members about how SAMHSA refuses to focus on helping the most seriously mentally ill and diverts its attention elsewhere. Mothers of people with serious mental illness told of their inability to get care for loved ones. Dr. Fuller Torrey told of SAMHSA’s commissioning a $22,500 painting for its headquarters. Dr. Sally Satel told the committee of SAMHSA’s ignoring its own advisory board and refusing to include programs that help the seriously ill in SAMHSA’s registry of effective programs. Mental Illness Policy Org. has documented SAMHSA’s diverting block grants away from people with serious mental illness and funding the anti-psychiatry movement, thereby making it more difficult for the most seriously ill to get life-saving and violence-preventing treatments.
— D. J. Jaffe is executive director of Mental Illness Policy.Org and author of the upcoming book How the Mental Health Industry Kills the Seriously Mentally Ill: A Handbook for Change.