More than 11 million American adults with mental illnesses – 4.5 million of them with serious mental illnesses – are not receiving care today. So it may not be unreasonable to conclude that the history of public mental health services over the last century can be summed up in a single brief sentence.
We replaced the chains of institutions with a chain of neglect.
I have argued that this chain of neglect typically begins when children with mental health needs are still young, and continues throughout their lives. And that it often has tragic consequences.
Why is it so important that we talk about breaking it now, the month after Sandy Hook and almost exactly two years since the mass shooting in Tucson?
It is because tragedies like those in Sandy Hook and Tucson remind us that it is wrong to balance budgets on the backs of children and young adults with mental illness and expect that there will be no consequences.
This is a sensitive, and even complicated, issue to discuss, because mental illness doesn’t cause violence. Violence causes mental illness.
Violence and mental illness also share some of the same risk factors, such as trauma and abuse.
They have something else in common, too. They often appear together in times of tragedy. And this may be the result of conscious policy decisions we have made.
It is hard to exaggerate the enormity of the problem that we have created by chopping away at mental health services.
In 1970, according to a 2009 article by Steven Sharfstein and Faith Dickerson in Health Affairs, there were 525,000 psychiatric beds in American hospitals. Eighty percent were in public institutions. By 2002, the number had dwindled to 212,000. Only 27% (or approximately 57,000) were in public institutions.
In the last ten years, things have gotten much worse. Between 2002 and 2010, states cut even more beds, reducing the number of public hospital psychiatric beds from 57,000 to just over 43,000. By 2009, according to SAMHSA Administrator Pamela Hyde, over 10 million people were reporting that they had unmet mental health needs.
What did states do after cutting inpatient beds? They cut community services, too. Since 2008, according to the National Association of State Mental Health Budget Directors, states have cut mental health budgets by $4.6 billion.
It doesn’t take a policy expert to conclude that when 4.5 million people with serious mental illness are receiving no mental health services, this is neglect.
And this neglect is the real link between mental illness and violence. Because while mental illnesses may not lead to violence, neglecting them assuredly will.
We can fix this.
After the Sandy Hook tragedy, the Hartford Courant invited me to make some suggestions about how.
I offered three. Because mental illnesses typically begin in childhood, the first is intervening early, by making mental health screening a part of regular well-child and, later, well-care exams. The second is intervening in the schools, by adding new special education services – paid for by states, not local education authorities – as symptoms of mental illness begin to affect school performance. The third is intervening when young adults need services, by re-directing dollars from jails and prisons to community mental health programs.
The resulting Op Edit, Breaking the Chain of Neglect, was published by the Courant on December 28th and appeared in print on December 30th. I hoped that it would add to a Connecticut dialogue about improving mental health services – one that has been ongoing for at least thirty-five years, when I first served in the State Legislature.
But perhaps we can all hope for something more in the aftermath of so many potentially avoidable tragedies – thoughtful new policies, instead of neglect.
In the past week, the column has been reprinted by a dozen others, including the Arizona Daily Star, the Dallas Morning News, the Tulsa World, the Las Vegas Sun, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Lawrence Journal World, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the Kansas City Star, and the Youngstown Vindicator.
If policymakers in just those areas were to decide to work together to improve mental health services for children and young adults, then the prevention, early intervention, and treatment improvements we need so badly might finally come.
And those policymakers could leave a lasting legacy for their own children – who, I can attest, may someday need the services themselves.
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