Sunday, August 25, 2013


Mental Illness Policy Org has written on problems at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Agency (SAMHSA).  The Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held hearings 5/23/13 at which Dr. Fuller Torrey and Sally Satel testified. Their testimony is below.  Joe Bruce's testimony is in a separate blog. Torrey and Satel highlighted how SAMHSA fails to serve the most seriously mentally ill; how many of their programs actually harm people with serious mental illness and suggested SAMHSA make greater use of Assisted Outpatient Treatment. Joe Bruce described how SAMHSA funded lawyers 'freed' his son from a psychiatric hospital after which he killed his mother with a hatchet.

SAMHSA Testimony of Dr. Sally Satel

Thank you for inviting me to testify today. I am a psychiatrist trained at Yale University School of Medicine. I served on the faculty until 1993. Since leaving Yale I have continued clinical work, part time, in drug treatment clinics in Washington D.C., and, since 2001, I have been a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

From 2002 to 2006 I was a member of the National Advisory Council of the Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS), the agency within SAMHSA charged with funding services for individuals who are mentally ill. [1] At that time, I expressed concerns privately to the head of SAMHSA, and publicly in published articles, that CMHS was failing to provide adequate federal leadership in the care of people with severe psychiatric disorders. By this term I refer to individuals afflicted by schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, severe depression (often with psychotic features), and related psychotic conditions.  

In the time I have today, I first wish to describe what I believe are two major sources of SAMSHA’s dereliction in attending to the sickest individuals. These are (1) its idiosyncratic interpretation of its very mission – one that fosters models of care that many chronically psychotic people are not capable of using, and (2) a dearth of psychiatrists in leadership position.  These two dynamics have played a significant role in shaping the agency’s overall orientation towards the severely mentally ill. Next, I will outline the manifestation of SAMSHA’s vision in the kinds of the programs it advances as models of care under its National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices.

SAMHSA’s Understanding of its Mission

The Recovery Model - SAMHSA’s guiding philosophy of care for all mental disorders, no matter the severity, is the “recovery model.” In 2004, the agency convened a conference at which the recovery model was formalized: “By definition, the recovery process must be self-directed by the individual, who defines his or her own life goals and designs a unique path toward those goals.” A 2012 SAMHSA newsletter framed recovery as “A process of change through which individuals improve their health and wellness, live a self-directed life, and strive to reach their full potential.”[2]
Many can benefit from the Recovery Model.  But so many cannot, as I will discuss in a moment.
The recovery emphasis reflects a chief recommendation of the 2003 New Freedom Commission on Mental Illness in a report commissioned by President George Bush. The commission focused on people who are willing and able to make use of treatments, programs, and opportunities. Notably, the commission even prided itself on soliciting testimony from constituents, stating, "Nearly every consumer…expressed the need to fully participate in his or her plan for recovery." The commission suggested that sufficient therapy, housing options, and employment programs will enable people with schizophrenia or manic-depressive illness to take charge of their lives.
Now, I recognize that many patients who have been diagnosed with these disorders can lead lives that are much more fulfilling and productive than some clinicians ever imagined and that some clinicians don’t pay enough attention to what a particular patient wants and to what he values in his or her life.
The problem is that some patients are too sick to take advantage of treatment, to collaborate in creating a detailed life plan, or to determine their own “unique path.” I am referring here to the fact that over half of all untreated people with a psychotic illness do not acknowledge there is anything wrong with them, a condition technically called anosognosia. This is a neurological problem caused by disruption of the mechanisms within the brain that mediate our capacity to reflect upon ourselves. They are the most vulnerable of CMHS’ constituency, yet the agency invests not nearly enough in their wellbeing.  
Indeed, during its hearings, the Commission did not hear from the sickest silent minority that is languishing in back bedrooms, jail cells, and homeless shelters. They are too paranoid, oblivious, or lost in psychosis to attend hearings, let alone testify at one.
This is a good place to point out that SAMSHA, too, receives much of its input – intentionally and selectively so in my view -- from so-called “consumer-survivors” to claim to speak for all patients. This creates significant distortion: the agency asserts that it is responsive to its constituents when, in fact, its most impaired constituents cannot advocate for themselves. What’s more, the views of other patients who would indeed able to participate more fully in their care, but also recognize the value of mainstream psychiatry and readily say they benefit from it, are not routinely, if at all, solicited. [3]
The problem with the recovery vision is that it is a dangerously partial vision. The emphasis on recovery as a goal steers policy away from the needs of the most severely disabled. SAMHSA forthrightly acknowledges that it sees the “consumer” who can “fully participate in his plan for recovery” is its primary constituent, not the dependent patients who need quality psychiatric care.[4] This imbalance needs to be corrected.
Dearth of Professional Psychiatric Input at CMHS

SAMHSA makes an inadequate contribution to the treatment of individuals with severe psychiatric disorders because it is under-populated by staff with expertise in the nature of their treatment needs.

During my tenure on the CMHS National Advisory Council, I attempted to have some input into the CMHS decisions regarding what projects should be funded. Despite the fact that we were called an “advisory council,” it was clear that CMHS did not want our advice. Rather than being able to see proposals ahead of time, we were presented with the approved proposals as a fait accompli at the time of the meeting. Thus SAMHSA not only had little in-house expertise on serious psychiatric disorders (I recall a single public mental health psychiatrist) it also failed to take advantage of the expertise on its own advisory council.

My colleague, Jeffrey Geller MD, Director of Public Sector Psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, who served on the CMHS Advisory Council from 2004-2008, had a similar experience.   “Most members who served during the years I served, gave up attempts for meaningful input and left in disgust,” he notes. They had repeatedly asked then-CMHS director, Kathryn Power, that the grant proposals “be provided to Council members in advance of the meetings, [that we have] time and opportunity for meaningful exchange on the merits of a proposal at the meeting, and/or revisions and re-review of the proposals…We were rebuffed each and every time.”[5]

Unbalanced Compendium of Care
SAMHSA’s National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices (NREPP) is an online “registry of mental health and substance abuse interventions that have been reviewed and rated by independent reviewers. The purpose of this registry is to assist the public in identifying scientifically based approaches to preventing and treating mental and/or substance use disorders that can be readily disseminated to the field.”[6]When a program is certified as evidence-based by SAMHSA, state mental health departments are encouraged to use block grant money for them.

On its website,, SAMHSA lists 288 separate evidence based programs (ideally understood to mean demonstrated in clinical trials, subjected to peer review and successful replication). Among the almost 300 studies, are many sound programs to treat substance abusers and drug offenders (e.g., Motivational Enhancement Therapy; Moral Reconation Therapy, Oxford House), enhance parenting skills, support caregivers, prevent HIV, etc.  Broad-focus programs such as “Enhance Wellness” (an exercise and education program for adults with physical illnesses) and “Coping Cat” (to help children recognizes symptoms or anxiety) may well be useful if well executed, but, crucially, like the vast majority of programs listed in the Registry, these are not intended for the sickest of individuals.
The striking nature of the NREPP repertoire of programs is its imbalance.
Programs for the Mentally Ill -- Of the 288 programs listed, four by my count, specifically designated people with severe illness as their recipients (Compeer, Critical Time Intervention, Housing First, and Psychiatric Rehabilitation Process Model). Among those, the Rehab Process Model is “client” centered and aimed at “encouraging self-determination,” again the recovery agenda with its intrinsic limitations, while Compeer is aimed at reducing isolation (a most noble aim, but, by design, not about treatment itself). Housing First is an excellent program for people who need minimal supervision and can comply with rules.  Critical Time Intervention provides time-limited case management, under supervision of a psychiatrist or psychologist, to prevent homelessness and other adverse outcomes in people with serious mental illness following discharge from hospitals, shelters, prisons and other institutions. This program is notable as is it most narrowly aimed at a highly vulnerable subpopulation.
A handful of other programs (Modified Therapeutic Community, and International Center for Club House Development, Wellness Recovery Action Planning, WRAP) do not specifically mention severe mental illness in their description, but presumably serve those patients as well. WRAP, in particular, is only eight weeks long. It is “designed to create a safe, nonjudgmental autonomy supportive environment in which people feel motivated to manage their mental health issues.”[7] Again, it is a program aimed at patients whose psychotic symptoms are in check. Worth noting as well, a recent assessment contains no measures of re-hospitalization, incarceration, or homelessness.[8]
Even if I missed some programs in my review of the synopses of all 288 programs listed, it is abundantly clear that services aimed specifically at the most desperately ill – or, more precisely, those in the most intense phase of their psychotic illness – represent only a small minority of the NREPP programs.
Furthermore – and remarkably -- NREPP neglects one of the most effective and best-studied programs for individuals with severe mental illnesses: Assisted Outpatient Therapy (AOT). AOT is a form of civil court-ordered community treatment, which is often necessary for those who have a reliable pattern of falling into a spiral of self-destruction or dangerousness when off medication. To date, studies have shown that it reduces hospitalizations; homelessness; both arrest and victimization of mentally ill people, and violent behavior. [9]Two studies document that AOT saves money. [10]The Department of Justice has certified AOT as an effective crime prevention program[11] Despite numerous attempts by families of people with mental illness to raise the profile of AOT at the agency, such programs remain unrecognized by NREPP.[12]
Primary Prevention Agenda of Block Grant Not Relevant to Severe Mental Illness

SAMHSA focuses heavily on the prevention of mental illness and substance abuse.
Prevention and severe mental illness is a puzzling concept because we know little about the biological causes of conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. These are primarily diseases of the brain but our understanding of the underlying brain mechanisms is still in the early stages. Absent this knowledge, prevention is not possible. Therefore, SAMHSA’s focus on prevention has virtually nothing to contribute to the well-being of individuals with severe mental illnesses.

Clearly, SAMSHA’s net is wide: In its instructions to the states on how the federal block grant funds should be spent, SAMHSA instructs them to “make general prevention and primary prevention priorities.” States are also told that: “The focus is about everyone, not just those illness or disease, but whole population. The focus is on prevention and wellness activities.” [13]Inclusive as the mission is, the agency makes relatively minimal room for the most needy.

Conclusion and Recommendations

In summary, SAMHSA is the federal agency created by Congress in 1992 to provide leadership on severe illness (among other aspects of mental health), yet little leadership is to be found within its walls. That CMHS does not have any psychiatrists in a leadership position is, frankly, astounding. Imagine the National Institute of Mental Health employing no neuroscientists in key roles. “Home, health, purpose, and community,” SAMHSA’s stated priorities, are supremely laudable goals but only – and this is a critical point – only for people who are motivated to to attain them and able to make use of help.  

Unfortunately, the Center for Mental Health Services has a skewed understanding of its constituency—no surprise, really, as its mission is refracted through the lens of the  “recovery model.” The agency’s guiding ideology leads it to overlook millions of people with long-term psychotic disorders. Very few SAMHSA programs help reduce the impact of mental illness on the communities – that is, on rates of incarceration, homelessness, and dangerousness.

The agency’s relative neglect of those with severe mental illness is only part of the problem. As the testimony of other panelists will make clear, the agency also supports activities that actively sabotage their welfare. This is strong language, I am aware. I refer here to CMHS’s seemingly uncritical support of both “consumer” groups and legal aide workers (though its Protection and Advocacy, PAIMI, program) who either condemn the use medications or are hostile to formal psychiatric care. The efforts of these advocates have been decidedly harmful to patients with schizophrenia and other psychotic illnesses.

I respectfully recommend that:

Consider directing the Secretary of HSS to commission demonstration projects of Assisted Outpatient Treatment (e.g. Kendra’s Law in New York, Laura’s Law in California) throughout the country.
  • Consider directing the Secretary to commission an independent review of the scientific soundness of NREPP programs, paying particular attention to effective programs for severe mental illness that should be included in the NREPP.
  • Consider directing the Secretary to review personnel hiring policies at SAMHSA with the goal of introducing more psychiatrists and psychologists who have direct clinical expertise in delivering publicly funded care to people with severe psychiatric disorders.
  • Consider redefining the goals of PAIMI by limiting its role to protection and disallowing lobbying of state legislatures on commitment laws
  • It is my hope that today that this Congressional Subcommittee can begin to address these shortcomings I’ve outlined in my remarks.
Thank you for your attention.

[1] To Fight Stigmas, Start With Treatment, New York Times, April 29, 2009 at
Sane Mental Health Laws? Don’t Hold Your BreathThe Weekly Standard May 28, 2006 at
Commission's Omission - The President's Mental-health Commission in Denial.  National Review July 9, 2003 at
[3]  See also,
[4] Interview with Kathryn Power, CMHS Director circa 2003 – 2008 Power is the Regional Administrator, Region One for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, where she continues to promote that philosophy.

[5] Personal communication, May 12, 2013
[8] ibid.
[12] and;
[13] p 39


Testimony by Dr. E. Fuller Torrey on SAMHSA

Chairman Murphy and Ms. DeGette, thank you for inviting me to testify on this important issue. I am a psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of individuals with severe mental illnesses, especially schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I am a retired career officer in the U.S. Public Health Service and currently the Executive Director of the Stanley Medical Research Institute, which spends $40 million each year in private funds for research on schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I am also the founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center, a non-profit group which advocates for better treatment for individuals with severe mental illness. 

I am here to testify regarding SAMHSA’s role in delivering services to the severely mentally ill. SAMHSA is a $3.5 billion agency which has been designated by the Dept. of Health and Human Services (DHHS) as the lead federal agency for services to individuals with mental illness and/or substance abuse problems.  

When the federal government receives inquiries regarding mental illness issues, such as occurred following the tragedies in Tucson, Aurora, and Newtown, these inquiries are usually referred to SAMHSA for response. SAMHSA defines its core mission as reducing “the impact of substance abuse and mental illness on America’s communities.” This is an important mission. 

I will illustrate today how SAMHSA is failing badly in fulfilling that mission. SAMHSA is, in fact, a very troubled federal agency. But let me clearly state at the outset that this failure is not a Democrat or Republican failure. The failure of SAMHSA is a politically equal opportunity failure. SAMHSA was put together in 1992 from the remnants of existing failed programs from other agencies by President George H. Bush. It continued to be a failed agency under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and is now continuing this tradition of failure under President Barack Obama. I wrote critically of SAMHSA’s failed programs during the first Bush administration (“Hippie Healthcare Policy,” Washington Monthly, April 2002) and have also done so during the Obama administration (“Bureaucratic Insanity,” National Review, June 20, 2011). To politicize SAMHSA and blame its failure on one party or the other is to miss the point. 

I will summarize the failures of SAMHSA by contrasting six types of activities SAMHSA should be doing with six types of activities SAMHSA actually is doing. 

(1) SAMHSA should be concerned with the fact that mass killings associated with untreated severe mental illnesses are increasing in the United States. 

This has now been demonstrated by three studies.1,2,3 The most extensive of the studies was done by the New York Times and showed a dramatic rise in mass killings between 1949 and 1999.  

Number of mass killings, 1949-1999 (Chart missing)
All three studies concluded that a majority of the perpetrators were mentally ill, e.g. Seung-Hui Cho, Jared Loughner, and James Holmes, all of whom had schizophrenia. 

Schizophrenia is one form of severe mental illness as defined by the National Advisory Mental Health Council in 1992, in response to a request from Congress. In addition to schizophrenia, severe mental illnesses were said to include schizo-affective disorder, bipolar disorder, autism, and severe forms of depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and panic disorder. SAMHSA acknowledges that 9.8 million American adults suffer from these illnesses. 

What is SAMHSA actually doing? Severe mental illnesses appear to have a very low priority at SAMHSA. In its current three-year plan defining its priorities (“Leading Change: A Plan for SAMHSA’s Roles and Actions, 2011-2014”), a 41,804 word document, there is no mention whatsoever of schizophrenia, schizo-affective disorder, bipolar disorder, severe depression, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, and a single mention of panic disorder.   

SAMHSA’s failure to focus on severe mental illnesses was also illustrated by its response to the Newtown mass killings. A Task Force under Vice-President Joseph Biden was convened to make recommendations regarding how such tragedies could be averted in the future. Pamela Hyde, Administrator of SAMHSA and a member of the Task Force, recommended that insurance coverage for mental illness treatment should be improved and that the early identification of individuals with mental illness should also be improved. In fact, insurance coverage and early identification were not problems for Seung-Hui Cho, Jared Loughner, James Holmes, Adam Lanza, or most other perpetrators of these tragedies. The SAMHSA response therefore completely missed the core problem, which is how to guarantee treatment for such severely mentally ill individuals once they are identified. 

To support the SAMHSA position it invited a psychiatrist, Dr. Daniel Fisher, to testify before the Biden Task Force. SAMHSA had to invite an outside psychiatrist because it has nobody among its 574 staff who has expertise on severe mental illness. For the past 3 years, it has employed only one psychiatrist but his expertise is exclusively substance abuse treatment. Dr. Fisher stated categorically to the Task Force that mental illness and violence are not linked, an assertion that is contradicted by more than 20 studies.4 Dr. Fisher, whose organization receives $330,000 each year from SAMHSA, is unusual in his belief that schizophrenia is not a disease of the brain, an assertion that is contradicted by literally hundreds of studies. This picture of identical twins, one of whom has schizophrenia, is illustrative.  

Rather Dr. Fisher describes the condition called schizophrenia as “severe emotional distress” or “a spiritual experience.” This is apparently consistent with SAMHSA’s position. 

(2) SAMHSA should be promoting treatment programs which have been proven to decrease violent behavior in individuals with severe mental illnesses. 

An example of such a program is conditional release which, in a study in New Hampshire, was shown to reduce violent episodes by half. 5 Assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) has also been shown to be highly effective in reducing hospitalizations, incarcerations, and episodes of violence. In North Carolina AOT reduced violent behavior from 42 to 27 percent.6 In New York AOT reduced the number of individuals who “physically harmed others” from 15 to 8 percent in one study.7 In another study, AOT reduced by 88 percent the chances of the mentally ill individual being arrested for a violent crime.

What is SAMHSA actually doing? SAMHSA’s three-year plan includes no mention whatsoever of these effective treatment programs. Ignoring such programs is bad enough, but it gets worse. SAMHSA actually funds many programs which lobby to block the implementation of these effective programs in the states. An example is the California Network of Mental Health Clients which has been funded by SAMHSA for almost two decades with as much as $200,000 per year. This organization has actively lobbied to prevent the implementation of AOT, called “Laura’s Law”, in California. The California Network of Mental Health Clients lost much of its state money in 2012 when it was publicly revealed that its acting director had used the organization’s credit card to bail himself out of jail after being charged with drunken driving.9 SAMHSA has funded similar organizations under its consumer grant program and its Protection and Advocacy grant program that have actively impeded the implementation of improved treatment laws in many other states, including Connecticut, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Utah, Vermont and Wisconsin.  

Brain scans of two individuals with schizophrenia 

(3) SAMHSA should be concerned about the fact that many individuals with severe mental illnesses—including Cho, Loughner, Holmes and Lanza—are unaware of their own mental illness and thus are very unlikely to seek treatment voluntarily. 

This unawareness is a result of their brain disease and is referred to as anosognosia. At least 18 studies of schizophrenia have reported differences in the brains of individuals with and without awareness of their illness. This poses major problems for treatment; the need to treat such individuals before they commit an act of violence must be weighed against the protection of that individual’s civil liberties. 

What is SAMHSA actually doing? SAMHSA does not acknowledge that some individuals with severe mental illnesses must be treated involuntarily because they lack awareness and are potentially dangerous to others as a result of their illness. Instead, SAMHSA sponsors an annual conference for individuals with severe mental illnesses at which individuals are encouraged to not take their medication. This federally-sponsored conference, called “Alternatives,” is the largest anti-psychiatry, anti-treatment meeting in the United States. Speakers at this conference make claims such as the following: “What is called schizophrenia in young people appears to be a healthy transformational process that should be facilitated instead of treated.” At the 2010 conference, at which the SAMHSA administrator gave the opening talk, one speaker claimed that schizophrenia is caused by the antipsychotic drugs used to treat it. Another speaker called severe mental illnesses “extreme states of consciousness that are mad gifts to be nurtured and cultivated.” Workshops such as “Coming off medications: A harm-reduction approach,” were widely available.

The annual “Alternatives” conference costs at least $500,000 in federal dollars each year; SAMHSA pays the conference sponsor $127,000 for administrative costs and many of the approximately 1,000 attendees  use SAMHSA funds to pay for transportation and hotels. Early this month SAMHSA approved funds for a similar conference this year. 

(4) SAMHSA should be concerned about the severe shortage in hospital beds for individuals with severe mental illness. 

Over the past half century 96 percent of state mental hospital beds for treating mentally ill individuals have been closed. The United States now has the same number of such beds, per population, as were available in 1850. According to experts in these fields, we now have less than one-third the number of beds which are needed for adequate psychiatric care.10 

What is SAMHSA actually doing? SAMHSA has publicly expressed virtually no concern about the severe shortage of psychiatric hospital beds in the United States. SAMHSA appears to be too busy with concerns about mental illness issues in other countries. SAMHSA has an International Office and in 2005 and 2006 “sponsored two Action Planning Conferences on Iraq Mental Health…in Amman, Jordan and Cairo, Egypt.” SAMHSA also sponsored 11 teams of “Iraqi behavioral health providers” who were brought to the U.S. in 2008 and 2010 to visit “trauma services, substance abuse services, and children’s mental health services.” One of the outcomes of the SAMHSA-sponsored meetings on Iraq mental health was a decision to close the Al-Rashad Mental Hospital in Baghdad, despite the already severe shortage of beds in that city. SAMHSA has also been involved in helping Afghanistan “build its mental health programs and capacity.”  

(5) SAMHSA should be concerned that there are now more than three times more persons with severe mental illnesses in jails and prisons than in hospitals. 

In the 1970s the percent of jail and prison inmates with severe mental illnesses was said to be 5 percent. In the 1980s it was 10 percent; in the 1990s 15 percent; and from 2000 to 2010 it was 20 percent.11 It is not unusual now to see estimates of 25 percent or more. 

What is SAMHSA actually doing? The incarceration of mentally ill persons in jails and prisons is not a priority for SAMHSA. It appears to be too busy with what it apparently regards as more important problems. For example, it produces and distributes free of charge reading books for children such as “Play Day in the Park” and “Wally Bear and Friends.” It also produces online children’s games such as “The Great Weather Race” and “Boogie Band Studio” as well as children’s sticker sets with stickers saying “My Smile is Beautiful” and “I love you.” SAMHSA also makes available hundreds of brochures on a wide variety of topics, e.g. “Hurricane Recovery Guides Preparedness Planning”, “Oil Spill Response: Making Behavioral Health a Top Priority.” Almost none of the SAMHSA brochures include anything about severe mental illnesses.  

(6) SAMHSA should be concerned that federal expenses for the care of individuals with severe mental illnesses are among the fastest growing federal budget items. 

Federal Medicaid, Medicare, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) associated with mental illness have risen sharply over the last three decades. “The total increase in these four programs between 1986-87 and 1997-98 was $2.6 billion per year, making them among the most rapidly growing programs in the federal budget.”12 Over the past decade these programs have continue to rapidly increase. Even allowing for inflation, the United States is now spending 12 times more per capita on mental illness than it was a half century ago. 

What is SAMHSA actually doing? In 2010 I asked SAMHSA for information on why federal costs for mental illness were increasing so rapidly, including the following questions: 
1. Why do some states have more than three times more mentally ill individuals, per population, on SSI and SSDI than other states do? 
2.  What is the percentage of mentally ill individuals on SSI and SSDI who are not receiving treatment? 
3. What is the percentage of Americans with serious mental illnesses who are receiving SSI and/or SSDI? 

The answers SAMHSA provided on November 19, 2010 were as follows: “We have no data”; “there is no source of this data to our knowledge”; and “SAMSHA does not have access to this information.”13 SAMHSA could collect such data if it wished to do so; its data collection branch is one of its few effective components. As the lead federal agency for mental health services, one might have expected SAMHSA to be interested in these questions, and to collect such information if it did not exist. 

SAMHSA apparently had no interest in such questions since at that time it was focused on other projects which it apparently deemed to be more important.9 One of these was the commissioning in 2010 of a painting for $22,500 by New Mexico artist Sam English. This painting, which was officially unveiled on March 8, 2011, shows a group of Native Americans. According to the press release put out by SAMHSA at the time of the painting’s unveiling, it “was commissioned to help raise awareness about the roles of families and the community in mental and substance use disorder prevention.” I believe everyone is aware that families are important, but how this painting was supposed to “raise awareness”, and whose awareness was supposed to be raised, is unclear. 

To try and answer these questions I went to the SAMHSA headquarter to see the painting. However the guard at the door would not let me in and told me that I would need to call ahead and get a special appointment to see the painting. 

The other project that SAMHSA was preoccupied with in November 2010, was final preparations for the SAMHSA annual staff musical. This took place on Dec. 1-3, 2010, with three performances attended by most of SAMHSA’s 574 staff members. According to the SAMHSA news release, the musical depicted characters who use drugs and “experience consequences of their behavior, including addiction and HIV/AIDS,” and finally “recognize the need to seek help.” The cost of the musical was over $80,000, including staff time. It is unclear what the musical was supposed to accomplish. Since the average salary of SAMHSA’s 574 employees is $109,000, it can be presumed that they all were aware that alcohol and drug use may have adverse consequences, and they should not need a musical to tell them that.

In summary, SAMHSA is, and has been since its creation 30 years ago, a failed federal agency. It is not a Democrat or Republican failure but rather a joint political failure. What I wish to emphasize most strongly is that this failure has consequences that affect us all. The issue is not merely what SAMHSA is doing—the waste of taxpayer money on projects like antipsychiatry conferences, the commissioning of paintings, or staff musicals. Many federal agencies waste money. The important issue is what SAMHSA is not doing to improve the broken mental illness and substance abuse treatment system in the United States. Because people with severe mental illnesses are not receiving treatment, tragedies occur every day of which Tucson, Aurora and Newtown are merely the most prominent. And unless Congress acts to improve this situation, such tragedies will continue to occur. 

Thank you for your attention. 

1 Hempel AG, Meloy JR, Richards TC. Offenders and offense characteristics of a nonrandom sample of mass murders. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and Law 1999, 27:213-225. 
2 Fessenden F. They threaten, seethe and unhinge, then kill in quantity. New York Times, April 9, 2000. 
3 Follman M, Aronsen G, Pan D. A guide to mass shootings in America. Mother Jones, December 15, 2012. 
4 Torrey EF. The Insanity Offense: How America’s Failure to Treat the Seriously Mentally Ill Endangers Its Citizens. New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. Pp. 140-148, 229-234. 
5O’Keefe C, Potenza DP, Mueser KR. Treatment outcomes for severely mentally ill patients on conditional discharge to community-based treatment. Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases 1997, 185:409-411. 
6 Swanson JW, Borum R, Swartz MS, et al. Can involuntary outpatient commitment reduce arrests among persons with severe mental illness? Criminal Justice and Behavior 2001, 28:156-189. 
7 Kendra’s Law: Final Report on the Status of Assisted Outpatient Treatment (New York State Office of Mental Health, March 2005). 
8 Link BG, Epperson MW, Perron BE, et al. Arrest outcomes associated with outpatient commitment in New York state. Psychiatric Services 2011, 62:504-508. 
9 Branan B. $3 million in state contracts yanked from Sacramento mental health group. Sacramento Bee, November 11, 2012. 
10 Torrey EF, Entsminger K, Geller J, et al. No room at the inn: trends and consequences of closing public psychiatric hospitals 2005-2010 (Treatment Advocacy Center, July 2012). 
11 Torrey EF, Kennard AD, Eslinger D, et al. More mentally ill persons are in jails and prisons than hospitals: a survey of the states (Treatment Advocacy Center, May 2010). 
12 Torrey EF, The Insanity Offense, pp. 168-169. 
13 Letter from Frances M. Harding, Director of the Center for Mental Health Services, SAMHSA, Nov. 19, 2010.

Editors Note

Powerful Testimony by Joe Bruce is presented in a separate blog post. While the hearings were on Serious Mental Illness, SAMHSA Administrator Pamela Hyde presented testimony that was generic and did not really answer the question: "What is SAMHSA doing for the seriously mentally ill".

For more information visit

Thursday, August 22, 2013

How to Fix New York State Office of Mental Health (OMH)

Testimony of DJ Jaffe, Executive Director, Mental Illness Policy Org
to NYS Office of Mental Health  
May 3, 2013, NYC

(Note: NYS OMH is the largest agency in the state ($3 billion) and still has no director. The acting director seems intent on following the failed policies of her predecessor which moved OMH from an organization dedicated to helping the most seriously ill, to one focused on "improving the mental health of all New Yorkers." She has stated unequivocally that she wants to close state psychiatric hospitals. NYS has fewer than 4,000 beds and probably 50% of those are for people unfit to stand trial, not guilty by reason of insanity, or were convicted and are mentally ill. -ed)

Thank you. We are a non-profit think tank providing unbiased science-based information to policymakers and media on serious mental illness, and not mental health. We are the only group in New York and one of only two in the country that is focused exclusively on those the NIMH defines as “seriously” mentally ill (primarily schizophrenia, the subset of bipolar disorder classified as “severe bipolar”, the subset of major depression called ‘severe major depression’ and a few others) In order to be considered serious, these diagnosis must be diagnosable currently or within the past year and continue to result in serious functional impairment, which substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities in persons 17 years or older.

It is people with serious mental illness who are most likely to become homeless, incarcerated or a headline that stigmatizes the others. It is people with serious mental illness who are likely to commit suicide or become victimized.  

We have two recommendations for you:
  1. Prioritize the most seriously ill and
  2. Make greater use of Kendra’s Law, if for no other reason, than because you have to in order to comply with Olmstead.

Prioritize the most seriously ill.

Today people with serious mental illness are no longer on OMH’s radar except as a cost to be cut. Your predecessor turned OMH from an organization that treated the most seriously ill to one now focused on "improving the mental health of all New Yorkers". It satisfies those with the loudest voices, but not those with the most serious illnesses.   Today, 15,000seriously mentally ill New Yorkers are being incarcerated, largely because less than 4,000 are receiving hospital services.  There are almost three times as many in a single jail; Riker’s Island, than in all New York State psychiatric hospitals combined.  Many more are homeless. The criminal justice system is now running a shadow mental health system. In the ultimate act of hubris, OMH is now advising courts and police on how to do what it won’t do itself: help people with serious mental illness.

 OMH describes itself as a safety-net, yet forces programs like Fountain House that are willing to serve the seriously ill to raise their own funds to stay in operation.  OMH has replaced Haldol, lithium, rehabilitation, housing and hospitals with pretty powerpoint presentations, and words like ‘hope’ and ‘recovery’. It may boost morale, but it’s not helping people with serious mental illness. Mission creep at OMH is putting patients, public, and pocketbooks at-risk.

The OMH “fix” is to close more hospitals. That’s ludicrous.  While OMH has 3,000 beds for the seriously ill, well over half are occupied by forensic patients. Studies show NYS needs at least 4,000 more psychiatric hospital beds to meet the needs of the most seriously ill and that assumes New York State had the best community services. You can call kicking people out of hospitals and adult homes creating Centers of Excellence, but it’s a disaster you know is going to happen.

I know why OMH does this. Your ‘stakeholders’ represent the high functioning. The homeless psychotic, institutionalized have no champion at OMH.  And then there are the trade associations like NYAPRS. Serving people with serious mental illness could put programs they champion at risk, or require them to serve more seriously ill.

I realize what I am saying goes against the advice you are getting from those you fund. Prioritizing the seriously ill is hard work. Put a psychiatric outreach worker in a school, and you’ll be applauded. Open a group home for people with serious mental illness in the community, and they’ll be asking for your head. Require local programs to serve the seriously ill and they howl.

But the core mission of OMH should be serving the seriously mentally ill, not offloading them to shelters jails prisons and morgues because there are other things you would like to do.

Make greater use of Kendra’s Law.

Kendra's Law is New York’s most successful program for the most seriously ill. 80% of the consumers enrolled in it says it helps them get well and stay well. Kendra's Law has been shown to reduce homelessness (74%); suicide attempts (55%); substance abuse (48%); hospitalization (77%); arrests (83%); physical harm to others (47%); property destruction (46%) and incarceration (87%). It is supported by police, the public, families of the most seriously ill and 81% of individuals in Kendra's Law.

In spite of it’s success and universal support the bill had to be passed over OMH objections, improved over OMH objections, and people who need the services can’t get in because of OMH. We thank Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther and Senator Catherine Young and wish OMH would work with them rather than oppose them. At minimum, OMH should stop it’s own behind the scenes activities to oppose AOT and stop funding groups who’s mission is to oppose it.

Dr. E. Fuller Torrey estimates that more than 4,000 New Yorkers with schizophrenia who need assisted outpatient treatment are not receiving it.

 As will be seen, NYS is required to make greater use Kendra’s Law to ensure individuals with mental illness receive treatment in the most integrated setting as required by Olmstead v. LC

  “It is a common phenomenon that a patient functions well with medication, yet, because of the mental illness itself, lacks the discipline or capacity to follow the regime the medication requires.” . (Olmstead V. L. C. (98-536) 527 U.S. 581 (1999))
It must be remembered, for the person with severe mental illness who has no treatment the most dreaded of confinements can be the imprisonment inflicted by his own mind, which shuts reality out and subjects him to the torment of voices and images beyond our own powers to describe.... (Olmstead V. L. C. (98-536) 527 U.S. 581 (1999))
Olmsted v. L.C., Held: Title II of the ADA requires services provided in the “most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of the disabled, considering available resources.

New Yorkers with serious mental illness are not living "in the most integrated setting appropriate to the needs of the disabled"
  • 15,000 New Yorkers with mental illness are living in jails and prisons
  • 4,000 New Yorkers with mental illness are living in state psychiatric hospitals
  • Others are living in shelters

Research shows Kendra’s Law cuts down on the time individuals spend institutionalized in hospitals, jails and prisons. Of patients enrolled in Kendra's Law:
  • 77% fewer experienced psychiatric hospitalization
  • On average, AOT recipients' length of hospitalization was reduced 56% from pre-AOT levels.
  • 83% fewer experienced arrest
  • 87% fewer experienced incarceration. (March 2005 N.Y. State Office of Mental Health “Kendra’s Law: Final Report on the Status of Assisted Outpatient Treatment.)

  • Individuals who received court ordered treatment in addition to enhanced community services spent 57 percent less time in psychiatric hospitals than individuals who received only enhanced services.
  • Individuals who had both court ordered treatment and enhanced services spent only six weeks in the hospital, compared to 14 weeks for those who did not receive court orders. 1998 Policy Research Associates, Inc. Research study of the New York City involuntary outpatient commitment pilot program.
  • Patients given mandatory outpatient treatment - who were more violent to begin with - were nevertheless four times less likely than members of the control group to perpetrate serious violence after undergoing treatment. February 2010 Columbia University. Phelan, Sinkewicz, Castille and Link. Effectiveness and Outcomes of Assisted Outpatient Treatment in New York State Psychiatric Services, Vol 61. No 2
  • For those who received AOT the odds of any arrest were 2.66 times greater and the odds of arrest for a violent offense 8.61 times greater before AOT than they were in the period during and shortly after AOT. The group never receiving AOT had nearly double the odds of arrest compared with the AOT group in the period during and shortly after assignment. March 2005 N.Y. State Office of Mental Health “Kendra’s Law: Final Report on the Status of Assisted Outpatient Treatment. “
  • (AOT) improves likelihood that providers will serve seriously mentally ill: It is also important to recognize that the AOT order exerts a critical effect on service providers stimulating their efforts to prioritize care for AOT recipients. Swartz, MS, Swanson, JW, Steadman, HJ, Robbins, PC and Monahan J. New York State Assisted Outpatient Treatment Program Evaluation. Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, NC, June, 2009
  • Providers of both transitional and permanent housing generally report that outpatient commitment help clients abide by the rules of the residence. More importantly, they often indicate that the court order helps clients to take medication and accept psychiatric services. 1999 NYC Dept. of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Alcoholism Services. H. Telson, R. Glickstein, M. Trujillo, Report of the Bellevue Hospital Center Outpatient Commitment Pilot

The problem is not lack of “available resources.” NY has “available resources”
  • NYS spends in excess of $3 billion on mental health
  • Using integrated settings saves money over institutions
  • Individuals with serious mental illness are largely excluded from OMH programs especially if they lack the ability to volunteer. The seriously ill go to the end of the line while worried well go to front.
  • OMH has never improved services for the most seriously ill, absent a court order.
  • $665 million of OMH budget (1/3) wasted per Dr. LlloydSederer: “Thus, taken together, $665 of the $814 (more than 80 percent!) was spent, perhaps unnecessarily, on people with mental disorders, principally for the serious medical illnesses that they frequently suffer.  

OMH refuses to focus existing resources on the most seriously ill. OMH serves 650,000. Only 3,600 are seriously mentally ill individuals in state hospitals and 1,871 are in assisted outpatient treatment programs. Maybe 100K are in other programs that help seriously mentally ill.
To be compliant with Olmstead, NY must make greater use of Kendra’s Law. To offer humane care for the most seriously ill NY should make use of Kendra’s Law.