Yes, the Republicans have been diverting attention from the regulation of firearms in America by switching to speaking of mental health; and yes, there’s a bill in the House (HR 2646) which seeks to address some of the issues raised by mass shootings. However, it’s not “gone anywhere” fast; and, it’s not a particularly good bill.
The title is nice, “Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2015” – some of the provisions are helpful, others may very well not be. The bill does provide for more sharing of information concerning a person who has gotten treatment for mental health problems. Section 401 allows for caregivers to receive information about diagnoses, treatment plans, appointment scheduling, medications and medication related instructions, but not any personal psychotherapy notes. This sharing is intended to protect the health, safety, or welfare of the individual or the general public. Caregivers would also have access to educational records in Section 402. There’s a fine line here. On one hand sharing information could (and possibly should) enable the caregivers involved to have a better understanding of the person’s condition and treatment plan. On the other there’s an element of concern about how much information is shared with whom – especially since mentally ill individuals are 11 times more likely to be victims of criminal acts than to perpetrate them. [MHA]
Assisted, Involuntary, Mandatory?
Then there’s the questionable use of the English language in the term “Assisted Outpatient Treatment.” It sounds like it would have the emphasis on “outpatient,” but the word that should be emphasized is “assisted,” as in assisted by the courts. “Assisted outpatient treatment (AOT) is court-ordered treatment (including medication) for individuals with severe mental illness who meet strict legal criteria, e.g., they have a history of medication noncompliance. Typically, violation of the court-ordered conditions can result in the individual being hospitalized for further treatment.” [TAC] There are studies which indicate the AOT plans in 45 states do help relieve some of the stress on caregivers, and often result in a reduction of hospitalization. Thus, what we’re really talking about here is mandatory outpatient treatment. Whatever we call it, “assisted,” “mandatory,” or “involuntary” before jumping to any conclusions we might want to determine if “it” works.
The efficacy depends on how we measure success. If the criteria include re-arrest rates, program costs, or crime rates, then the AOT plan appears successful in general societal and economic terms. [TAC] On the cautionary side, the Phelan Study (NYC 2010) included ‘184 people who were in AOT and compared them to a control group recently discharged from a psychiatric hospital and were attending the same outpatient facilities as the AOT group. Both groups experienced similar reductions in psychotic symptoms.’ “The AOT group members were four times less likely to report an incident of serious violent behavior than those in the control group,” which would be good news indeed, except that the AOT wasn’t the sole factor. The Duke Mental Health Study (Swanson 2000) found “improved outcomes and reduced violence was associated with simply more frequent service visits over an extended period of time (6 months or more).” [PsychCen] In short, time and treatment were the most significant factors.
And now we’re left with a question: Is the success of the AOT programs correlated to the coercion element, or is the success of the program correlated to the extension of the treatment services over time? If the latter, then we’d expect to be allocating more funding to the treatment services necessary. Another question raised might well be on what basis are we justifying our political decisions concerning the implementation and funding for AOTs? Are we successful if we reduce policing costs? Institutionalization costs? Or do we measure success in terms of the mental health of the patient? There is, most likely, a place for AOT in our mental health care system, how much emphasis we want to place on it is a political decision.
Politicians and Policy
“On June 4, Congressman Tim Murphy introduced legislation (HR 2646) designed to dismantle the federal mental health authority – the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) – which has successfully promoted recovery and community inclusion for individuals with serious behavioral health conditions for 25 years, as called for by President Bush’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health. The bill would replace SAMHSA with a new Office headed by a politically appointed government official, controlled by Congress ….” [MHA]
This is the point at which the two familiar bugbears of politics emerge: Congressional Control and Funding.
“Threats of sequestration in 2013 had a significant impact on people’s ability to access mental health services and programs, including children’s mental health services, suicide prevention programs, homeless outreach programs, substance abuse treatment programs, housing and employment assistance, health research, and virtually every type of public mental health support. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) claimed it alone would be cutting $168 million from its 2013 spending, including a reduction of $83.1 million in grants for substance abuse treatment programs.” [Forbes]
What hasn’t been cut in Congressional appropriations for mental health care support for the states isn’t faring all that well in the FY 2015 budget. Sometimes it seems that “block grant” simply means a way to pile the money together and then cut the whole stack. For example, in FY 2013 the Community Mental Health Services Block Grant program received a total of $437 million, in FY 2014 the figure increased to $484 million, but in FY 2015 the final number is $483 million. One provision in H.R. 2646 would allow only medical professionals with certain academic credentials to evaluate block grant requests – which sounds very “professional” except when we consider that some substance abuse and alternative programs may be very successful, but aren’t necessarily conducted with the imprimatur of currently medically credentialed individuals – critics have charged that this is a perfect way to “ossify” the field of mental health care and substance abuse treatment.
There is an alternative bill in Congress which does not eliminate SAMHSA, and which shares many of the provisions of H.R. 2646, is S. 1945. A comparison of the two bills is available here in pdf format. Whether the administrative situation is changed or not, unless the funding for the programs is enhanced, or at least made equal to the inflation rate, it may not matter much who is administering a smaller portion of an already diminishing pie.
It’s The Money Stupid
Enforced treatment, coerced treatment, “assisted” treatment, or whatever we may chose to call it without addressing the need for “time and treatment;” combined with Congressional micro-management, Presidential politics; and, an underfunded by a block grant system, doesn’t seem like the best approach to addressing mental health services in this country.
First, we need to get some perspective. If SAMSHA has focused on alcohol and drug abuse it’s probably because as of 2013 we had 17.3 million Americans who were categorized as “alcohol dependent,” and some 24.6 million who had used illicit drugs in the previous month before the 2013 survey. [DAgov] By contrast, government figures estimate approximately 10 million adult Americans with serious mental illnesses. [NIMH] The focus issue is only important IF we’ve decided we can afford to address one problem or the other, but not both. Focus isn’t an issue if we decide that we can do two things at once and proceed to tackle both.
Secondly, there most likely is a valid social use for mandatory treatment especially for those who cannot or will not voluntarily cooperate with evidently necessary treatment plans, and whose behavior is such that the individual presents, in the hackneyed phrase, a danger to himself or others. Further, while patient privacy is a legitimate concern, it should not infringe on the needs of caregivers and others with whom a seriously mentally ill comes in contact. (While we’re on this topic – why not consider additional funding for local police and law enforcement agencies to allow training in dealing with the mentally ill? If the motto is “Protect and Serve,” then might not allowing police officers to receive limited but significant information about a patient serve to improve their interaction with him or her.)
Third, it doesn’t make sense to argue for increased institutionalization, on a short or long term basis, if there are inadequate facilities available. For example, in 2010 Nevada had 302 beds for the mentally ill, which is calculated to be approximately 25% of the total need. [TAC] [see also LVRJ 2013] If part of the solution is AOT, and the coercion element is hospitalization, then the hospital beds need to be available.
Therefore, if we are truly interested in making life safer for the general public (witness: mass shootings by mentally ill individuals) and safer for the mentally ill (who are 11 times more likely to be the victims of crimes), then it should behoove us to consider allocating some resources toward creating a system in which (1) there are adequate and easily accessible mental health care facilities and services, (2) there is adequate funding for mental health care services so that these facilities are maintained and expanded as needed, and (3) we are not overly focused on Silver Bullet Solutions, but willing to advance and develop a spectrum of mental health care services which include a wide range of treatment options.
There are some good portions of both H.R. 2646 and S. 1945, and some definite limitations and foibles exposed in each. What neither bill manages successfully is to fully fund the mental health care needs of Americans in the 21st century.