SAMHSA - Making a difference in the lives of children, families and communities

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Morning Zen Guest Blogger ~ Paolo del Vecchio

The Children’s Mental Health Network recently posted Liza Long’s May 3rd blog “Where Art Thou SAMHSA” that critiques the work and focus of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). It might help readers to have some facts about SAMHSA and the programs and concepts it supports.

Ms. Long is correct that most Americans are not aware of the important role that SAMHSA has played over the past 20 years to improve the lives of people experiencing mental health and addiction problems – including those with serious mental illnesses. Here are just a few examples:

SAMHSA does all of this and much more as a very small federal agency with a very limited budget that frankly pales in contrast to the budgets appropriated for many other health conditions – despite the fact that one in five Americans in any year will experience a mental disorder. Even within SAMHSA’s budget, two-thirds of the agency’s funding is dedicated to substance abuse. It is also important to note that SAMHSA does all of this work at the behest and direction of Congress, the President, and ultimately the American people. For those of us who care about helping children, youth, and adults with serious emotional disturbances or serious mental illnesses, the issue is not the programs of one particular federal agency. Rather the issue is our nation’s overall political and financial commitment to supporting prevention, treatment and recovery services for individuals at risk for mental illnesses or who experience such conditions and live, play, work, and go to school in America’s communities.

Ms. Long also takes exception to SAMHSA’s focus on recovery. Here, it is important to point out that recovery has been embraced by family organizations, consumers, providers, states and such notable healthcare leaders as the U.S. Surgeon General, the Institute of Medicine, Presidential Commissions, and others. SAMHSA views recovery as a process for an individual and their family to pursue the goals of healing from mental illnesses – including serious mental illnesses – and to live a full life in our community. Recovery includes medical and mental health treatment. It also includes important supports such as housing, employment, and social supports including families and friends. Most importantly, recovery provides the key message that there is hope. For too long, society has written off and ignored people with mental illnesses – particularly those with serious mental illnesses. Recovery helps to reverse those negative attitudes that have had such detrimental impacts on people’s willingness to seek help as well as on policies such as financing needed care.

Thankfully, changes are happening. The passage of the Mental Health Parity and Addictions Equity Act and the Affordable Care Act are a true recognition and a validation of SAMHSA’s messages that behavioral health is essential to overall health, prevention works, treatment is effective, and people do recover from mental illnesses and substance use disorders. SAMHSA is working with its federal partners to bring mental health treatment to 62 million more Americans as a result of the Affordable Care Act and the Mental Health Parity and Addictions Equity Act.

All should learn more about SAMHSA and its efforts to reduce the impact of substance abuse and mental illness on America’s communities at www.samhsa.gov.  

SAMHSA agrees with Ms. Long that that there is still much more to do.  Too many Americans continue to not receive needed treatment. Too many experience homelessness and poverty. Too many are in our jails and prisons. Too many die by suicide.

To reach its goals in addressing these areas, SAMHSA recognizes the importance of partnering with other federal agencies who pay for, set standards for, or regulate needed services and providers, as well as with families, practitioners, states, consumers, and others. To quote Barbara Cherneski, the Family Lead of Delaware B.E.S.T. for Young Children and Their Families, and a family member with lived experience with mental illness: “SAMHSA can’t do this alone, it takes a village.” SAMHSA needs your support and those of so many impacted by mental illnesses in order to continue to make a difference in the lives of our nation’s children, our families, and our communities. 

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paoloPaolo del Vecchio, MSW, is the Director of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)’s Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS). SAMHSA is the lead Federal agency designed to reduce the impact of substance abuse and mental illness on America’s communities. In this role, Mr. del Vecchio provides executive leadership for Federal efforts to improve the nation’s mental health service systems. This includes management of the federal/state mental health block grant program and directing a range of programs and activities that address topics such as suicide prevention, children’s mental health, homelessness, disaster mental health, HIV/AIDS, and others.

Previously, Mr. del Vecchio was the CMHS Associate Director for Consumer Affairs where he directed SAMHSA’s precedent-setting programs and activities that advanced consumer participation and education, a recovery orientation for the mental health system, peer support and the adoption of certified peer specialists, wellness and primary care integration, understanding of trauma histories and the social determinants of health and mental health, and led programs to reduce discrimination and prejudice associated with mental illnesses. 

Prior to joining SAMHSA, Paolo worked for the Philadelphia Office of Mental Health in the areas of policy formulation and the planning of a comprehensive system of community-based mental health services addressing homelessness, HIV/AIDS, and many other issues.

A self-identified mental health consumer, trauma survivor, and person in recovery from addictions, Paolo has been involved for over 40 years in behavioral health as a consumer, family member, provider, advocate, and policy maker. He graduated summa cum laude with a Master’s Degree in Social Work from Temple University, has published widely, and is a highly sought after national leader and speaker. Paolo has been a leader in many Federal efforts including the Federal Advisory Planning Board for the Surgeon General's Report on Mental Health, the HHS Multiple Chronic Conditions Initiative, the HHS Living Community Initiative and numerous others.

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