The Slow Death of a Dream

Whatever his personal shortcomings, President John F. Kennedy was undeniably a visionary. He envisioned and enabled a robust NASA space program, he established the Peace Corps, and he laid the foundation for a nationwide community mental health care system. NASA has sent astronauts to the moon and the Peace Corps is still making friends for the U.S. all over the world, but the dream of a national program of affordable, local preventive mental health services has been dying a slow death. Now we have a bare bones system inadequate to meeting the needs of the neediest, let alone providing preventive services to individuals and families in crisis.

The Community Mental Health Care Act of 1963 authorized federal funding for the establishment of local mental health centers all over the country, with the long-term goal of de-institutionalization. The plan was to enable states to empty-out their expensive centralized state hospitals/asylums for the custodial and medical care of chronically mentally ill persons, and to shift to less-expensive local outpatient care.  Little did I know when I began my career as a mental health professional in 1976 that I was joining the fledgling system near its zenith, and that I’d witness a steady decline in public sector service provision throughout the rest of my career.

The dream of an adequate nationwide community mental health care system died of legislative neglect, all over the country. Seeing a windfall for state general funds, most state legislatures pulled a bait-and-switch operation. They accepted federal funds for as long as they were available, but didn’t follow-through on the intent of the law with state matching funds. They saved a lot of money by closing their centralized mental institutions, but didn’t allocate nearly enough of the savings to establish adequate local care alternatives. Good outpatient care prevents costly inpatient treatment.

Most of my first ten years of clinical practice were in rural Alabama and South Carolina, at satellite offices of regional mental health centers. At that time individuals and families could get counseling for a very reasonable sliding scale fee, based on income. With such services available, suicides are prevented, marriages are saved, dysfunctional families become more functional, and individuals learn skills that enable them to function at a higher level. I’ve seen all those things happen. It’s been a privilege to be there as a counselor for people who can’t afford services from private sector providers, and I mourn the loss of that level of service provision in communities.

These days most community mental health centers are understaffed, and clinicians spend much or most of their time providing basic case management services to overwhelming caseloads. That’s why jails and prisons have become major mental health service providers, why hospital emergency departments are frequently overwhelmed by patients needing emergency mental health care, why so many mentally ill people are homeless, and why dangerous people increasingly fall through the widening cracks in the system.

Because of the legislative gutting of the mental health system, patient care is down to the bare bones. Outpatient counseling and other preventive services are hard to find. We desperately need more community resources. Effective outpatient services not only prevent hospitalizations, they save lives. Every dollar cut from preventive services ends up being spent elsewhere – in hospital emergency departments, jails, prisons, and homeless shelters. Our lawmakers seem to have forgotten the wisdom that an once of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Looking back, I have my criticisms of the system I used to be a part of, but many of them are due to the diminished funding over the years. Community mental health has done a lot of good for a lot of people, and I saw lives change because affordable counseling was available to individuals and families. But the community mental health system didn’t offer alternatives to the dominant medical model. As resources dwindled, patient care for persons with chronic mental illnesses mostly consisted of case management services, occasional and short “psychiatric medical assessments” (PMAs), and the prescription of psychiatric medications – many of which have serious side effects. Sedating people with drugs is cheaper – at least in the short term – than providing support services that might reduce reliance on chemicals that only treat symptoms.

I’m not hopeful that the mental health system will be repaired anytime soon. Although I’m retired from clinical practice, I remain an active advocate for the rights of mentally ill persons. We need to modify the mental health system by taking a more holistic approach and providing alternatives to PMAs as the sole basis of treatment for people with chronic mental illnesses. I think that psych meds can be an important component of treatment. But I think there’s an over-reliance on their use, because of the influence of Big Pharma on the system and because of the lack of holistic support services available to people who suffer from mental illnesses.

If you want to know more about what’s wrong with the mental health system, I recommend Pete Earley’s still-timely 2006 book, Crazy – A Father’s Search Through America’s Mental Health Madness. In alternating chapters he tells the story of his own heartbreaking difficulties trying to get help for his bipolar son in a broken system, and details what he learned as a journalist at the Miami-Dade County Jail about how we got to this sad state of affairs. If you want to join others in advocating for the rights of mentally ill folks, check out NAMI, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

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