Morning Zen

Helping Ellie McCance-Katz Help Millions of Families Help Their Loved Ones with Serious Mental Illnesses

September 13, 2018

On her recent Stakeholders On-Line Meeting (August 17, 2018), anyone with a heart to feel could hear the anguish among the callers seeking help for family members. And anyone listening to Assistant Secretary McCance-Katz could feel her compassion mixed with pain at being unable to offer help now. Such is the epidemic of serious mental illness and addictions across America. It’s real; it’s now. It’s very, very painful.

Hearing the plaintive, woeful stories on the conference call makes one feel their pain, and more so if you’ve experienced these burdens as a family member or as a passionate clinician. The Assistant Secretary’s compassion showed on the call, and such compassion only comes with authentic experience with such pain.

I know both sources of those pains, as a family member and as clinician taking the difficult adult and child cases. I’ve been to the emergency rooms with my clients, and I bailed out my parents as a teen. I’ve dealt with the police and judicial authorities. I know the angles and levers, and still, it can end badly—arrests, restraints, inappropriate medications, and injuries that tear at heart, soul, and the essence of humanity. I can tell the Assistant Secretary knows all about these painful events.

Ellie is the diminutive for Eleanor. I like to hear her called by the diminutive. It completely transforms the political nature of her position and instantly warms others to her passion to help people who need lots of help regarding serious mental illness.

So, let’s play with the challenge facing America that Ellie so passionately wants to solve. Virtually every family member on the call spoke about serious mental illness. Unless you are a family member, clinician, and law enforcement, you may have little understanding how completely scary such episodes are. I’ve experienced such episodes with patients in ER’s, with EMT’s and police. And I know what it is like as a child having experienced such things. The bystander cannot panic or become threatening or coercive without serious risk.

Every episode of serious mental illness is an n=1. What to do in the moment is very hard to prescribe beforehand or help in the moment. That is clear from the stakeholder callers. It’s a challenge, because about 1 in 25 adults in the U.S.—9.8 million, or 4.0%—experiences a serious mental illness in a given year according to National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

There will never be enough psychiatrists to help, no matter what Dr. McCance-Katz does. Forbes Magazine comments that there are only 28,000 psychiatrists in America, and their numbers are shrinking. Anyone who thinks there will suddenly be more psychiatrists, psychologists and other licensed clinicians to deal effectively with the epidemic of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders before 2020 is delusional. I hear the catch in Ellie’s voice. She knows of the impossible treatment mountain to climb, and anyone can hear the compassion in her on the call. She understands the desperate need to engage families and provide support to families who are trying to deal with this crisis.

So, what can we do to help Ellie, who has been given an impossible task? Science can come to her rescue, and America is not using that science. Amazingly, American researchers did most of that science, which has been largely funded by the U.S. government. Even better, that science is something almost every community, large or small, can act on.

Ellie, please keep your passion, and please keep your mind and heart open. No epidemic was ever stopped by rigid thinking.

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About the Author

Dennis Embry

Dennis 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. Dr. Embry serves as a National Advisory Council member and Chief Science Advisor to the Children’s Mental Health Network. His work and that of colleagues is 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. 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.

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