Good intentions, sense, science, and dollars: Improving the new Murphy Bill

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Morning Zen Guest Blog Post ~ Dennis D. Embry, Ph.D.

So many people, including Congressman Murphy, are saying things like, “my son, daughter or spouse would have been saved by the Murphy Bill.” Having lost my parents and brother to the complications of mental illness and addictions, I can empathize with that. Perhaps that is why I became a first-rate psychologist and first-rate scientist for preventing mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders. Mr. Murphy believes so much in his bill that he’s commented that it would have stopped Adam Lanza (CT), James Holmes (CO) and Jared Laughner (AZ) in my hometown of Tucson. We will consider the good intentions in light of sense, science, and dollars.

Sense and Good Intentions
The bill contains honorable and hopeful aspirations, yet that evokes a quote from Thomas Edison that merits mindfulness: “A good intention, with a bad approach, often leads to a poor result.” So here is the Murphy bill, full of good intentions. When you consider the sense, science, and dollars, the bill will almost certainly lead to a bad result. 

With both successes and failures in results of major policy projects under my belt by co-writing two bills with good intentions, one worked well, and the other was sinkhole that swallowed money with mixed effects. A first principle of trying to do a good is to own and measure the possibility of failure, and own failure when it happens. This is why I am a scientist who demands that the results good or bad or in-between be published. That is wise when thinking about the future of our children and society.

In politics, however, errors and failures get buried and obscured, regardless of political party. How many political leaders in America have gone before cameras, saying? “My policies failed.” How many political leaders have demanded that their pet peeve policy and legislation be subjected to a rigorous scientifically valid evaluation, and sanctioned the publication of results if it failed? Perhaps the advocates of the Murphy Bill might want to read the web page of the Coalition for Evidenced-Base Practices in DC:

Sense and Science
Section 2 of the revised Murphy bill states, “The term ‘‘evidence-based’’ means the conscientious, systematic, explicit, and judicious appraisal and use of external, current, reliable, and valid research findings as the basis for making decisions about the effectiveness and efficacy of a program, intervention, or treatment.”

Only one practice is actually named in the revised Murphy bill—assisted outpatient treatment—out of a treasure trove of better evidence-based practices that could be deployed and should be deployed to save our country from the growing tragic epidemic of mental illnesses documented by several Institute of Medicine Reports [1, 2].

The single strategy proposed in the Murphy Bill does not meet the Top-Tier or Near Top Tier criteria of the Coalition for Evidence-Based Practices, nor meets the standards of Cochrane Review—another independent arbiter of evidence-based practices in medicine and psychiatry. Here’s what the Cochrane Review says about the golden boy that is supposed to prevent all the terrible events across America, including my city of Tucson:

We helped the Treatment Advocacy Center to get AOT on the National Registry of Evidence-Based Practices (NREPP), with the clear caution that the science was not strong and that the strategy required much more research, given there were alternative practices that had more robust, scientifically-proven results. The AOT research scores are on the low side for a submission, with an overall of 2.5 out of 4.

How does that compare to some well-studied strategies for serious mental illnesses like Dialectic Behavioral Therapy? DBT ratings range from 3.2-to-3.7 out of 4, and DBT has been widely scaled and evaluated.  Similarly, NIDA’s vast investment on testing prize contingency management for treating very serious addictions (which happens a lot with folks with serious mental illnesses) has research ratings of 3.4 to 3.6 out of 4. Betting the nation’s future on research score of 2.5 is like placing a bet on a pair of cards at Vegas; the House or entropy in the case of policy will likely win. How do I know that?  Well for one, my colleagues and I have taken a bunch of good quality prevention and intervention strategies to scale (including whole states and provinces) in the United States and other countries, with successes and challenges. In all three cases, these strategies have much better research scores, and still there were challenges—even-though one of those achieved population-level effects using federally collected data across states. Indeed, there is a whole level of experimental research on these issues called, Implementation Science.

The “evaluations” outlined in the bill are weak, and don’t meet any reasonable standards of finding out scientifically if the bill achieves the advertised purposes of averting future Newtown’s, Aurora’s, or Tucson’s—let alone making sure no parent or family has to wait for a psychiatric bed for seriously mentally ill loved one, as hyped to pass the bill. None of my colleagues with the proven, published studies for evaluating such large-scale prevention, intervention, or treatment practices and policies have been invited to testify or consult, and the bill really doesn’t factor in such talent in the advisory boards. Is it possible to design a sensible scientific strategy to evaluate this massive experiment with the Nation’s Mental Health? Absolutely. I can rattle of practical ways in minutes, but what will Congress do if this governmental reorganization fails?

Let us be sensible: there is absolutely no high-quality, well-controlled peer-reviewed scientific publications that remotely suggest the Murphy Bill would have, or will stop future horrific events that happened in Newtown (CT), Aurora (CO), or Tucson (AZ). That’s simply good intentions. That said, the bill’s opponent often equally tout their good intentions, with similar emotional appeals and weak evidence.

Let us be equally sensible, forced treatment has horror stories—which I know first hand as a family member and clinician. Just letting very troubled patients decide to seek treatment has equally horrific stories. Both shades of grey are abundant in the press. 

The recommended best implementation of AOT I visited in Hamilton, OH was exemplary as promised but is not presently scalable in the county let alone the nation or state of Ohio to handle all the potential patients who need it. You can read my report about this terrific exemplar in a previous posting on the CMHNetwork website.

I get and honor the good intentions of both Congressman Murphy and his detractors. The revised bill cannot achieve the hoped-for goals when it pivots on a weak strategy and is not crafted based on good science of prevention, intervention, treatment or their implementation. Our current policies and practices are not working, as well documented by the rise in morbidity and mortality from neuropsychiatric disorders in the United States by diverse sources [1-13].

One thing absolutely missing from testimony and the bill is a serious discussion the prevention of mental illnesses long before events in Newtown, Aurora, and Tucson. In 1994, when the Institute of Medicine reviewed the evidence, there was a hint of possibility but no solid science. In 2009, the Institute of Medicine revisited that issue after the publication of hundreds of well-designed randomized, longitudinal trials that concretely proved it was possible to prevent such serious problems.

Sense and Dollars
The promise of the bill cannot be practically achieved, when it only appropriates a fraction of the funds spent in New York to achieve its statewide results with AOT. To achieve the result in New York across the United States would require $4 billion in new treatment money. And if all the money from the mental health block grant (about $480 million) each year were diverted just to patients with first-episode psychosis (for which there is both good prevention and treatment research) that would be only about $900 per patient for the 500,000 cases per year—not even one night for a psych bed. Further, the bill lacks a credible way to scientifically evaluate the outcomes of this vast “policy experiment” with the minds of our most fragile citizens. I speak this caution from both successes and utter failure of my own good intentions trying to better lives with science, dollars, and policy.

There are better ways to achieve the good intentions of all the parties, with better sense, science, and dollar value. I wish we could have that adult discussion: millions of lives hang in the balance.

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Dennis Embry, President/Senior Scientist at PAXIS Institute – Dennis D. Embry is a prominent prevention scientist in the United States and Canada, trained as clinician and developmental and child psychologist. He is president/senior scientist at PAXIS Institute in Tucson and co-investigator at Johns Hopkins University and the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy. His work and that of colleagues cited in 2009 the Institute of Medicine Report on The Prevention of Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Disorders Among Young People. Clinically his work has focused on children and adults with serious mental illnesses. He was responsible for drafting of the letter signed by  23 scientists, who collectively represent scores of randomized prevention trials of mental illnesses published in leading scientific journals. In March 2014, his work and the work of several signatories was featured in a Prime-TV special on the Canadian Broadcast Corporation on the prevention of mental illnesses among children—which have become epidemic in North America. Dr. Embry serves on the Children's Mental Health Network Advisory Council. 

1. O'Connell, M.E., T. Boat, and K.E. Warner, eds. Preventing Mental, Emotional, and Behavioral Disorders Among Young People: Progress and Possibilities. Committee on the Prevention of Mental Disorders and Substance Abuse Among Children, Youth and Young Adults: Research Advances and Promising Interventions. 2009, Institute of Medicine; National Research Council: Washington, DC. 576.

2. Woolf, S.H. and L. Aron, U.S. Health in International Perspective: Shorter Lives, Poorer Health, in Board on Population Health and Public Health Practice, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education, R.M. Martinez, Editor. 2013, The National Research Council and Institute of Medicine: Washington, DC.

3. Soni, A., The Five Most Costly Children's Conditions, 2011: Estimates for U.S. Civilian Noninstitutionalized Children, Ages 0-17, A.f.H.R.a. Quality, Editor. 2014, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality: Washington, DC.

4. Merikangas, K.R., et al., Comorbidity of Physical and Mental Disorders in the Neurodevelopmental Genomics Cohort Study. Pediatrics, 2015.

5. Kessler, R.C., et al., Prevalence, persistence, and sociodemographic correlates of DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication Adolescent Supplement. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 2012. 69(4): p. 372-80.

6. Patton, G.C., et al., Health of the world's adolescents: a synthesis of internationally comparable data. The Lancet, 2012. 379(9826): p. 1665-1675.

7. Thomas, J.R., Panel looks to tackle skyrocketing special education costs, in The CT Mirror. 2012, The Connecticut News Project, Inc: Hartford, CT.

8. Copeland, W., et al., Cumulative Prevalence of Psychiatric Disorders by Young Adulthood: A Prospective Cohort Analysis From the Great Smoky Mountains Study. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 2011. 50(3): p. 252-261.

9. Twenge, J.M., et al., Birth cohort increases in psychopathology among young Americans, 1938-2007: A cross-temporal meta-analysis of the MMPI. Clin Psychol Rev, 2010. 30(2): p. 145-54.

10. Smith, J.P. and G.C. Smith, Long-term economic costs of psychological problems during childhood. Soc Sci Med, 2010. 71(1): p. 110-5.

11. Merikangas, K.R., et al., Prevalence and treatment of mental disorders among US children in the 2001-2004 NHANES. Pediatrics, 2010. 125(1): p. 75-81.

12. Mathews, A.W., So Young and So Many Pills: More than 25% of Kids and Teens in the U.S. Take Prescriptions on a Regular Basis, in Wall Street Journal. 2010, The News Corporation: New York.

13. McMichael, W.H., Most U.S. youths unfit to serve, data show, in Army Times. 2009: Washington, DC.


  1. Dennis Embry's avatar
    Dennis Embry
    | Permalink
    Dear Walt,

    I've been on travel, so I just noted your comment and questions.

    Your comment suggests you know Congressman Murphy. Is that correct? if so, it would be wonderful if Congressman Murphy and his bill made your interpretations loud and clear.

    As mentioned in my essay, there is only one evidence-based practice mentioned in the House Bill, and that is AOT. The sausage of policy is made by bills, not what you and I think or infer. Being both a good clinician and scientist, I visited the very best AOT in America promoted by Dr. Murphy's allies in the bill. It was wonderful, but hardly replicable across America. I wish it could be. Here is my report. Again, AOT is the anchor of the bill, and the only strategy singled out. The Cochrane Review is not a biased review, nor easily swayed by statistical tricks.

    Your comment is true about the "side issue I'd the p hacking and other games used to get studies published." Therein lies a paradox. The bill demands evidence-based practices. The only way to drive around that problem is systematic replication by diverse investigators and scientists. Fortunately, there are such strategies, but they were never discussed at the hearings nor any part of the bill. That is incredibly worrisome, since none of the witnesses (as far as I know) have significant histories of high-quality published scientific studies on prevention, intervention or treatment of mental illnesses on any registry of evidence-based practices in the world. That puzzles me. If you know Dr. Murphy, perhaps you can point me to what I might have missed?

    You mention an overview you have of the Murphy Bill for me to comment on in your posting. Perhaps that did not get posted. Without it, I cannot post any intelligent comments.

    Thanks for your comments and questions.

  2. Steve Kossor's avatar
    Steve Kossor
    | Permalink
    The relative lack of appreciation among the professional community for the actual requirements for calling a treatment "evidence based" is alarming, as evidenced by the language in the Murphy bill that was illuminated by Dr. Embry. It would be a significant improvement if parental assessment of progress was required of all childrens treatment programs for a variety of reasons, not the least if which is the empowerment of parents as the most powerful forces of change in the lives of young children. We should be cautious to include parents in the treatment & prevention processes (and those who function "in loco parentis" too). As we've seen for decades in schools, throwing money at a problem does nothing positive. When *really* evidence based interventions are used and parents/adult caretakers are meaningfully involved however, the results are much more likely to be as-hoped-for, if not better. At least where younger children are involved. Thanks for the terrific insights, Dr. Embry.
  3. walt stawicki's avatar
    walt stawicki
    | Permalink
    I have points of agreement and a few sore points from reading.

    Agree that we need proof not just good sounding promises for treatment. So does murphy.

    A side issue I'd the p hacking and other games used to get studies published.

    Not all aot is equally. Murphy would agree I'm sure. Saying its all he talks about by name is a disingenuous straw man ploy.

    I would like to explore your position more. You don't seem particularly of the ectremer wing like mad in america or in Ireland etc. And I've read perfectly valid things on MIA btw.

    SO here is a overview of the murphy bill and I would love your rebutal before making a final opinion of it and your given view.
  4. Dennis Embry's avatar
    Dennis Embry
    | Permalink
    Dear George,

    I am not surprised, but am saddened by what you report. Your experience is precisely the type of issue that I am worried about and predict. I provided a very detailed essay for the Network previously posted what makes AOT work (when it works) from the visit to Hamilton, Ohio which would be a great place for your nephew.

    In my newest essay, I report on my own failure in co-writing a bill with vast good intentions in Wyoming that was the largest per-capita expenditure for for mental-health and substance abuse treatment ever in the US. It required evidence-based practices just like the current bill, but we didn't have the structure and supervision components set up (just like the current bill). I still did site visits. One of the evidence-based programs to be implemented was the Matrix model for methamphetamine & cocaine. It's very well researched. I visited most treatment centers. They all said they were doing Matrix, but they didn't do materials rewards for being clean or engaging recovery behaviors and they didn't do drug testing—all of which were the critical active ingredients for recovery and sobriety. The answer was, "we don't believe in those." Most of the "therapy sessions" were group meetings of people talking about their last high, and the other members "one-upping" each other for how much worse their high was. That alone is exceeding well proven to increase problem behaviors in careful studies.

    Assisted Outpatient Treatment is a container for the T. And it is the T I wrote about earlier.

    You give me a good idea. I am going to make a list of the best active ingredients demonstrated from research for making the T work in a check list. My heart goes out to you and your nephew.
  5. Scott Bryant-Comstock's avatar
    Scott Bryant-Comstock
    | Permalink
    George Patrin (as usual) gets to the heart of the matter quickly. Just saying you provide AOT means nothing. As we have been saying for months now, "Let's talk about the "T" in AOT. If we are not willing to fund what works beyond medication management, then we are providing false hope to families.
  6. Scott Bryant-Comstock's avatar
    Scott Bryant-Comstock
    | Permalink
    Donna: We should have a fact sheet identifying both beneficial and challenging components of the bill available on our website this coming Friday. Look for it in Friday Update.
  7. Donna's avatar
    | Permalink
    Does anyone have a letter template with key points on why this bill is not good for us and especially children, youth and families that we could use to contact Murphy and our legislators?
  8. George Patrin, MD/MHA, San Antonio, TX's avatar
    George Patrin, MD/MHA, San Antonio, TX
    | Permalink
    Dennis, Problem I'm having, after trying to get for my nephew in San Antonio, is that all the programs we do have saying they are providing "AOT" are actually very poor 'holding tanks' that don't provide any "therapy," only forced medications. When he firmly stated he wasn't interested in medications, but would consider talk therapy, he has 'privileges' withheld, like walks in the exercise yard, and hot showers. We must be careful, Congressman Murphy, we will probably get what we pay for. We have to revamp what we are doing before we throw money at accessing it.
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