Politics & Policy

The Ridiculous ‘National Wellness Week’

Your tax dollars at work. (Elena Elisseeva/Dreamstime.com)
A mental-health agency uses tax money to urge us to drink fruit smoothies and make “sacred” drums.

Just when you thought you had seen all the ways that a federal agency can waste taxpayers’ money, think again. SAMHSA, the $3.5 billion Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, has come up with an entirely new way. SAMHSA has achieved notoriety in the past for commissioning a $22,500 painting for its offices and for putting on an $80,000 musical for the entertainment of its 574 staff members. But SAMHSA is not content to rest on its laurels and has proclaimed the week of September 15–​24 to be National Wellness Week.

The importance of this week may not be immediately obvious to you, so SAMHSA will explain. This is a week during which you should “enhance your physical, emotional, social, intellectual, spiritual, financial, occupational, and environmental wellness.” And what exactly does that mean, you ask? SAMHSA provides you with hundreds of examples, such as visiting a farmers’ market, taking a class on nutritional cooking, “drinking a veggie or fruit smoothie,” reading poetry, making a collage, taking a walk, joining a song circle, or taking a class on how to make sacred drums. SAMHSA urges everyone to “join the Line Dance for wellness in communities across the country” on Friday, because “dancing is a great stress reliever and also provides social interaction.” I can see it now — traffic stopped in all major cities as everyone line-dances through the city center.

SAMHSA will also send you free posters and brochures to help celebrate National Wellness Week. You can put up your wall posters that display “Eight Dimensions of Wellness” or “Top Three Ways to Promote Wellness.” Three brochures are also available as well as a 25-slide PowerPoint presentation. SAMHSA loves to give things away — past giveaways have included coloring books for children (“Play Day in the Park,” “Wally Bear and Friends”) and children’s sticker sets emblazoned with meaningful messages such as “My Smile Is Beautiful” and “I Love You.” Giving things away is one of SAMHSA’s specialties.

What kind of federal agency is promoting this nonsense, you may wonder? Do we really need a $3.5 billion national nanny to tell you what your mother used to tell you (although she may have forgotten to include the advice on sacred-drum-making)? SAMHSA is the federal agency that has a primary responsibility for overseeing mental-health services. It defines its mission as “reducing the impact of substance abuse and mental illness on America’s communities.” We are all aware, of course, that untreated mental illness is a huge national problem. And, as a matter of fact, this week is the one-year anniversary of Aaron Alexis’s incursion into the Washington Navy Yard where he killed twelve and injured five others. The media are replete with stories of the long-term effects on the families of Alexis’s action. Wouldn’t it have been more useful for SAMHSA to have used this week to examine what went wrong with Aarron Alexis, so it doesn’t happen again, rather than having a National Wellness Week?

Unfortunately, SAMHSA only does mental wellness, not mental illness. In its current three-year plan in which it defines its priorities (“Leading Change: A Plan for SAMHSA’s Roles and Actions, 2011–2014”), there is no mention whatsoever of schizophrenia, the brain disease that afflicted Aaron Alexis. Among its 574 employees, SAMHSA does not employ a single psychiatrist who has expertise in serious mental illness (the only two psychiatrists it does employ are specialists in substance abuse). It therefore has no capacity to discuss what should have happened in Newport, R.I., when Alexis went to the police and complained that disembodied voices were harassing him at his hotel using a microwave machine to prevent him from sleeping. Or what should have happened when his employer, a defense-contracting company, was told about his behavior. The company pulled Alexis’s access to classified material for two days, then restored it and did not inform Navy officials. Aaron Alexis, in the middle of excruciating psychosis, was calling out for help and treatment. The call went unheard.

The Navy Yard is of course only one of many tragedies caused by untreated mental illness. Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech, Jared Loughner in Tucson, and James Holmes in Aurora are among many other examples of individuals with serious mental illness who were waving large red flags that we failed to see. Does SAMHSA believe that these tragedies could have been prevented if only these individuals had practiced mental wellness by “drinking a veggie or fruit smoothie,” taking a class on how to make sacred drums, or joining a line dance?

Where is Senator William Proxmire when we need him? From 1975 to 1988, this Democratic senator from Wisconsin gave out monthly Golden Fleece awards to government-funded projects that were a total waste of taxpayers’ money. SAMHSA clearly has the funds and the staff to win this award for several months running. And where is Sylvia Burwell, the current head of the Department of Health and Human Services? When she was the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, she had a reputation for not tolerating dysfunctional agencies. And she has now inherited one such agency in SAMHSA. The only public official who has focused on the SAMHSA problem is Representative Tim Murphy (R., Pa.), whose proposed “Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act” (HR 3717) includes corrective actions for SAMHSA. Despite obtaining impressive bipartisan support and endorsement, Murphy’s legislation has been sidetracked by House minority leader Nancy Pelosi and a handful of Democrats.

One suggestion for any individual who wants to improve his or her “financial wellness” this week is to obtain a job at SAMHSA. They pay an average salary of $107,000, and your job will be to come up with new ways to waste taxpayers’ money. Better yet, eliminate SAMHSA and the mental wellness of all American taxpayers will improve. Salvage SAMHSA’s few worthwhile programs by giving them to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), but if ever there was a case to be made for the euthanasia of a government agency, SAMHSA is it.

— E. Fuller Torrey, M.D., is the founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center and author of American Psychosis: How the Federal Government Destroyed the Mental Illness Treatment System.

E. Fuller Torrey — Mr. Torrey, a psychiatrist, is the founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center (www.treatmentadvocacycenter.org) and the author of The Insanity Offense: How America’s Failure to Treat the Seriously Mentally Ill Endangers Its Citizens (W. W. Norton).


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