Morning Zen

Congressman Tim Murphy introduces controversial Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2013

December 15, 2013

On Friday, one day before the anniversary of the Newtown school shooting tragedy and on the same day of yet another tragic shooting at a school in Colorado, Congressman Tim Murphy introduced the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2013, a bill that would effectively rewrite how the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) operates and significantly narrow the focus of the types of mental health services and supports it helps promote through its grant programs. While the bill is at this point just a proposal, it is an important read for Network faithful as it sheds a light on the thinking of many individuals across the country about how to improve mental health services in America. Unfortunately, with the continued tragedies occurring at schools across the nation the tendency to equate guns and violence with mental illness leads to recommended solutions in this bill that are narrow in focus and could potentially set back the advances in the field of mental health 20 to 30 years.

What makes writing this Morning Zen piece difficult for me is that I have the utmost respect for Congressman Murphy. A child psychologist by training, co-author of two books (“The Angry Child: Regaining Control When Your Child Is Out of Control” and “Overcoming Passive-Aggression), it is obvious that Congressman Murphy cares deeply about improving mental health services. For that he is to be applauded. But what is in this proposed bill for the most part is either mystifying or antithetical to what the research tells us works best for young people with emotional challenges and their families. In fairness, at the end of this post I have included links to position statements on the proposed bill from national organizations and thought leaders both for and against the bill. As always, we pride ourselves on providing as many perspectives as possible so that our educated readers can make up their own minds and respond to their elected officials accordingly.

The response from mental health advocates and provider groups both for and against the bill was swift. As is the general approach of the Children’s Mental Health Network we took the weekend to read and digest the 135-page bill before making our comments. The list is long so grab a cup of coffee for this one.

The proposed bill is complex in that mixed in with proposals that are administratively bureaucratic, relying on reference resources that in some cases are twenty years old and frankly dismissive of anything outside of the realm of narrowly defined evidence based practice, are some excellent proposals such as continuing funding for the Garrett Lee Smith and National Child Traumatic Stress initiatives.

However, overwhelmingly the recommended changes in the bill set the advances made in knowledge about what works for youth with mental health challenges and their families back a good twenty to thirty years.

Clouding the picture of how to interpret this proposed bill was the timing of its release – on the eve of the anniversary of the Newtown tragedy and on the day of yet another shooting at a school in Colorado, where emotions were already running high and the popular press was flooded with news stories about guns, violence and mental illness. Even though research shows that those with a mental illness are significantly more likely to be a victim of violence than a perpetrator of violence, discussions in Congress about what to do tend to fall too easily into the guns + violence = mental illness equation.

Note: Be sure to read Lisa Lambert’s Morning Zen post for a parent’s reflection on the anniversary of the Newtown tragedy.

Okay, with all of this in mind as a backdrop for what is in the proposed bill, let’s take a walk through some of the highlights. The 135 page document is one I encourage you to read to get your own sense of its merits and drawbacks. In this post I will focus on some of the key areas that are important to highlight. Page numbers of the bill are cited so that you can read the full text in the copy of the proposed bill that you can download here.

Additional layers of bureaucracy added while diminishing the decision-making role of key SAMHSA personnel (Page 4)
The position of Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders would be created. This individual would directly supervise the Administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Reading through the responsibilities that this individual would have left me perplexed, as the duties described appear to already be in place under the responsibility of the Administrator.

National Mental Health Policy Laboratory (page 7)
The proposed bill calls for the creation of a National Mental Health Policy Laboratory (NMHPL) headed by a Director. The purpose of this Director position would be to:

  • (A) Identify and implement policy changes and other trends likely to have the most significant impact on mental health services and monitor their impact in accordance with the principles outlined in National Advisory Mental Health Council’s 2006 report entitled ‘The Road Ahead: Research Partnerships To Transform Services’;
  • (B) Collect information from grantees under programs established or amended by the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2013 and under other mental health programs under this Act, including grantees that are federally qualified community behavioral health clinics certified under section 201 of the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2013 and States receiving funds under a block grant under part B of title XIX of this Act; and
  • (C) Evaluate and disseminate to such grantees evidence-based practices and services delivery models using the best available science shown to reduce program expenditures while enhancing the quality of care furnished to individuals by other such grantees.”

The description of the NMHPL goes on to say that “In selecting evidence-based practices and services delivery models for evaluation and dissemination under paragraph (2)(C), the Director of the NMHPL 

  • (A) Shall give preference to models that improve the coordination, quality, and efficiency of health care services furnished to individuals with serious mental illness; and
  • (B) May include clinical protocols and practices used in the Recovery After Initial Schizophrenia Episode (RAISE) project and the North American Prodrome Longitudinal Study (NAPLS) of the National Institute of Mental Health.

On page 10 the language continues with “In carrying out the duties under this section, the Director of the NMHPL shall consult with representatives of the National Institute of Mental Health on organization, hiring decisions, and operations, initially and on an ongoing basis; (B) other appropriate Federal agencies; and (C) clinical and analytical experts with expertise in medicine, psychiatric and clinical psychological care, and health care management.

The Children’s Mental Health Network is troubled that there is no mention of youth and family involvement in such a consulting pool, especially with the impressive track record achieved by SAMHSA in cultivating a family-driven, youth guided approach through its system of care grants and cooperative agreements over the past 20+ years.

Interagency Serious Mental Illness Coordinating Committee (page 14)
Yet another bureaucratic layer is added to the decision-making process with the recommendation to establish an Interagency Serious Mental Illness Coordinating Committee to “assist the Assistant Secretary in carrying out the Assistant Secretary’s duties.

The responsibilities of this Committee include:

  • (1) Develop and annually update a summary of advances in serious mental illness research related to causes, prevention, treatment, early screening, diagnosis or rule out, intervention, and access to services and supports for individuals with serious mental illness;
  • (2) Monitor Federal activities with respect to serious mental illness;
  • (3) Make recommendations to the Assistant Secretary regarding any appropriate changes to such activities, including recommendations to the Director of NIH with respect to the strategic plan developed under paragraph (5);
  • (4) Make recommendations to the Assistant Secretary regarding public participation in decisions relating to serious mental illness;
  • (5) Develop and annually update a strategic plan for the conduct of, and support for, serious mental illness research, including proposed budgetary requirements; and
  • (6) Submit to the Congress such strategic plan and any updates to such plan.

There is a long list of required members for this committee (page 15), including the Director of NIH, the Attorney General of the United States; the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and more. Members of the Committee serve 4-year terms and would be required to meet a minimum of two times per year. In addition, the Committee “may establish subcommittees and convene workshops and conferences “to enable the subcommittees to carry out their duties.”

And finally, with regard to administrative duties, on page 70 it is noted that the administration of block grants would be removed from the Director of the Center for Mental Health Services and shifted to the Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders. Gonna be one busy Assistant Secretary if this proposal goes through!

I can’t help but think that if this plan were to come to fruition there would be bureaucratic gridlock. Two new significant leadership positions assuming key duties of currently existing high ranking officials within SAMHSA and a large Committee with sub-committees to “assist the Assistant Secretary in carrying out the Assistant Secretary’s duties” (Page 14). In my mind, this is a huge duplication of duties already ascribed to the SAMHSA Administrator, the Director of the Center for Mental Health Services and others within SAMHSA.

Let’s move away from administrative duties to some of the new grant programs proposed, specifically the Assisted Outpatient Treatment Program. The proposed bill calls for up to 50 grants each year for a 4-year pilot program to focus on assisted outpatient treatment programs (Page 19). Each grant would be eligible for one million dollars per year for four years – $15,000,000 per year would be authorized totaling $60,000,000 over the four-year period.

Assisted outpatient treatment is a controversial topic, with some saying it is the best option for an adult with a mental illness who “lacks capacity to fully understand or lacks judgment to make informed decisions regarding his or her need for treatment, care, or supervision.” Others, including the Children’s Mental Health Network, see this as a potentially dangerous road to travel in that it could have wide-ranging impact on those who might be swept up unnecessarily. You can review both sides of the argument regarding Assisted Outpatient Treatment at the end of this post.

Number of seriously mentally ill who are imprisoned (page 63)
Section 405 focuses on reports of the number of seriously mentally ill who are imprisoned. An important topic for sure, the intent is to “calculate the number and type of crimes committed by persons with serious mental illness each year, and detail strategies or ideas for preventing crimes by those individuals with serious mental illness from occurring… For purposes of this section, the Attorney General, in consultation with the Assistant Secretary of Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders shall determine an appropriate definition of ‘‘serious mental illness’’ based on the Health Care Reform for Americans with Severe Mental Illnesses: Report’’ of the National Advisory Mental Health Council, American Journal of Psychiatry 1993; 150:1447–1465. The link is provided though you will need to pay the journal for the download. We can only hope that this document, written 20 years ago, reflects the evolution of thinking about mental health challenges since then. Of greater concern is the proposed process for decision-making about defining “serious mental illness.” Should this just be left to the Assistant Secretary and the Attorney General? This is much too vague for our liking.

Reducing the stigma of serious mental illness (page 79)
It is hard to even comment on this section when the entire document is stigma-laden, focusing primarily on a narrow subset of those individuals with a diagnosis of serious mental illness when describing what needs to happen within a federal agency charged with looking at the full spectrum of behavioral health issues. However, Network faithful should read it and decide for themselves.

Title XI-SAMHSA Reauthorization and Reforms (page 99)
Mentioned earlier is the fact that the Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders would be in charge of SAMHSA. One of the more fascinating recommendations is that “At least 30 days before awarding a grant, cooperative agreement, or contract, the Administrator shall give written notice of the award to the Committee on Energy and Commerce of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions of the Senate.’’ This suggests adding yet another layer of review, more opportunity for delay and added bureaucracy. Though not specified, one could assume that a member of either Committee could block a grant award.

In addition, it would be required that “Before awarding a grant, cooperative agreement, or contract, the Secretary shall provide a list of the members of the peer review group responsible for reviewing the award to the Committee on Energy and Commerce of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions of the Senate.” This is yet another opportunity for delay and bureaucratic red tape.

Transfer of all functions and responsibilities of the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality to the National Mental Health Policy Laboratory (page 102)
This section discusses the transfer of “all functions and responsibilities of the Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality to the National Mental Health Policy Laboratory. Why would one do this? In addition, in this section responsibilities currently assigned to the Administrator are reassigned to the Assistant Secretary. I am beginning to wonder what is left for the Administrator to do?

Establish a clearinghouse of evidence-based practices  (page 106)
In this section there is mention of the establishment of “a clearinghouse of evidence-based practices, which has first been reviewed and approved by a panel of psychiatrists and clinical psychologists, for mental health information to assure the widespread dissemination of such information to States, political subdivisions, educational agencies and institutions, treatment and prevention service providers, and the general public, including information concerning the practical application of research supported by the National Institute of Mental Health that is applicable to improving the delivery of services…”

Unfortunately there is no mention of consumers, families or youth involved in this review.

Limitations on Authority (page 133)
The section on Limitations on Authority includes some questionable items. For example, in this section it is stated that in order for SAMHSA to host or sponsor a conference they “must give at least 90 days of prior notification to the Committee on Energy and Commerce and Committee on Appropriations of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions and Committee on Appropriations of the Senate.” Again, this seems like yet another unnecessary layer of bureaucracy.

No financial assistance to any program without evidence-based practices (page 133)
Continuing on page 133 is the directive that the Administrator of SAMHSA “shall not provide any financial assistance for any program relating to mental health or substance use diagnosis or treatment, unless such diagnosis and treatment relies on evidence-based practices.”

If you have made it this far in this lengthy post you know that this leads back to the question “What is an evidence-based practice and who is involved in deciding that?” From reading the full text of the proposed bill the decision makers are definitely skewed toward the medical community with a strong focus on a narrow slice of the overall population of individuals needing mental health services.

Elimination of unauthorized SAMHSA programs without explicit statutory authorization (page 134)
Saving one of the more controversial items for last (at least as based on the tenor of emails sent to the Network over the weekend) is the section on the elimination of unauthorized SAMHSA programs without explicit statutory authorization. The language is clear that no new programs are to be created that are not explicitly authorized or required by statute and that “by the end of fiscal year 2014, any program or project of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that is not explicitly authorized or required by statute shall be terminated.”

The proposed bill goes on to say “The Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders shall seek to enter into an arrangement with the Institute of Medicine under which the Institute (or, if the Institute declines to enter into such arrangement, another appropriate entity) agrees to submit a report to the Congress not later than July 31, 2014, identifying each program, project, or activity to be terminated under subsection (a).

So, there you have it. Quite a bit to chew on and I cut this post down significantly. Please take the time to read the proposed bill. Whether it gains traction in the House or not it is important to remember that this proposed bill reflects the thinking of many. If you are concerned about this, as we are, then you might want to consider an education campaign.

Next week we will share our collaborative efforts with Maryland-based mental health providers, adult and youth representatives with experience receiving mental health services, and family advocates and other agency representatives to put together a site visit for Senate and House Appropriations Committee staff to not only show them what a coordinated system of care approach looks like in the effective provision of services and supports for young adults with mental health challenges, but also to provide them the opportunity for one on one dialogue with youth and adults who utilize mental health  services, families and the amazingly dedicated professionals who work side by side with them. We began organizing this effort for Senate Appropriations staff as a result of our inquiry into the Healthy Transitions Initiative in August of this year. Senate Appropriations Committee staff have agreed to come and we will be extending an invitation to House Appropriations Committee staff this week. I will give you full details in the Morning Zen post this coming Friday.

What is so important about our education campaign is that it is not focused on one grant or particular service. We are not bringing staffers to a visit to ask for money. We are bringing staffers to a visit to let them experience firsthand the importance of a comprehensive approach to meeting (in this case) the needs of young adults with mental health challenges. Sounds like a systems of care approach to me!

And finally, here is a sampling of different individual and organizational analyses and reactions to the proposed bill, both pro and con. Remember, an educated voice is a powerful voice.

For the proposed bill

Against the proposed bill

Time to do your homework folks!

Scott Bryant-Comstock
President & CEO

Children’s Mental Health Network

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