Oh SAMHSA, Where Art Thou?

May 04, 2014

Morning Zen Guest Blogger ~ Liza Long

What did Newtown mean, if we can’t get help for children and families in mental health crisis? 

I have a confession to make. Until about a year ago, I had no idea what SAMHSA was. I had never even heard of it. My son has struggled with serious behavioral issues for more than nine years, which we now know are caused by his bipolar disorder. We were working with a small army of social workers, counselors, school personnel, psychiatrists, therapists—and I was well-versed in a small textbook of acronyms like IEP, SMI, ADHD, ODD, ADA, etc. But not one time was SAMHSA or any of its programs ever mentioned to me as a resource. 

I’m going to assume that you’re like me, that you also have no idea what SAMHSA is or what it stands for. It’s the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and it’s important because it gives out a ton of grant money—they have requested $3.6 billion for next year—to community organizations, many of which I also personally support with my own time and money. According to the agency’s own website, “Congress established the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) in 1992 to make substance use and mental disorder information, services, and research more accessible.” 

A New Kind of Stigma 
Well, to put it bluntly, if that’s its mission, SAMHSA sucks. 

One of SAMHSA’s top priorities is the elimination of stigma that surrounds mental illness. And that’s important, because stigma harms children and families. DJ Jaffe of recently argued that stigma does not exist—that prejudice and discrimination are the real problem. I disagree with him on the first point, but could not agree more fervently with the second. 

You don’t have to go any farther than the SAMHSA webpage to see an example of prejudice and discrimination against people with serious mental illness. Look around. Can you find anything—even the littlest thing—that talks about SMI? The message I get from SAMHSA is this: “Behavioral health is essential to health. Prevention Works. People Recover. Treatment is effective.” 

I wish this were always true. For people with serious mental illness, people like my son, too often it’s not. 

Pretty words, no substance 
SAMHSA, the very organization tasked with serving children who have mental illness and their families, creates stigma by refusing to talk about—let alone provide solutions for—the inconvenient truths that plague too many of us: violence, prison, homelessness, fear. In fact, in its focus on “behavioral health” and “recovery,” I would propose that SAMHSA actually creates its own pernicious, subversive form of stigmatization within the very community that is supposed to be supporting people with mental illness. 

Behavioral health implies choice. So does recovery. SAMHSA promotes a consumer model, where people with behavioral problems choose to get help and recover. The problem is that this approach does not reflect reality. For many people who suffer from Serious Mental Illness—schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression—choice is not an option. 

Forced Treatment Already Exists. It’s Called Prison. 
jail3Why does this matter? Because right now, Representative Tim Murphy has proposed legislation that would overhaul our nation’s broken mental health system, providing much needed treatment to people with serious mental illness and restoring accountability to SAMHSA, an organization that has suffered from a massive dose of mission creep. HR 3717, the “Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act,” was drafted after extensive consultation with parents like me, consumers of mental health care, law enforcement professionals, and other stakeholders in this increasingly serious mental health crisis that has created an environment where mass shootings or stabbings barely make the news anymore. 

But community organizations are out in full force against the bill. I know this, because as I mentioned, I volunteer for many organizations, and I am on their mailing lists. The primary rallying cry against the bill seems to be the idea of “forced treatment,” or treating people against their will. Here’s an example of the type of language they are using: 

  • [HR 3717] is intentionally designed to make it sound benign and to gloss over the potential harm and many rights violations. For example, ‘increase access to mental health treatment,’ in many instances, means increased force. Empowering ‘family members’ means taking away privacy protections and rights to confidentiality for adults in mental health services. Expanding ‘access to evidence-based treatments,’ means eliminating access to alternatives that don’t have the funds to become ‘evidence-based.’ Advancing ‘medical research’ means severely reducing funds to other groups and organizations, including the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). 

Oh, I get it. You can’t show any measurable outcomes for your education or anti-stigma or peer support program, and you are afraid you’ll lose your funding. 

As a response, Democrats are rumored to be presenting their own mental health bill this week, eliminating the provisions of Murphy’s bill which would have helped families in mental health crisis the most. What I want to say to these probably well-meaning representatives is this: forced treatment for people with mental illness already exists. It’s called prison. E.F. Torrey, the mental health industry’s Cassandra, issued a clear-eyed warning about treating serious mental illness in jail back in 1993, and today, the problem is even larger.

What Murphy’s bill actually calls for is Assisted Outpatient Treatment (AOT), and it’s a proven way to keep people out of jail and off the streets. In drafting HR 3717, Rep.Murphy, a child psychologist, did his homework. He talked to those of us who are living this nightmare. He knows what we need to prevent another tragedy like what happened to Creigh Deeds, or to countless other families. I want to ask those representatives who are not supporting Murphy: what did Newtown mean, if we can’t get help for children and families in mental health crisis? 

I’m Okay, You’re Okay 
The thing is, I also agree with SAMHSA. For neurotypical people like me, behavioral health is incredibly important to overall health and quality of life. I know this firsthand. Like most Americans, I have personally experienced bouts of situational depression. My senior year of college, I broke off an engagement. My father was dying of cancer. I could not experience any joy or imagine any meaning to life. I became passively suicidal and began to control the only thing I felt I could control: my daily intake of food. 

Fortunately, my wonderful roommates intervened and got me help. I learned to overcome my negative thoughts, to exercise, to practice yoga. I developed resilience. I am grateful to the therapists, and yes, to the Zoloft, that got me through that dark period in my life. The tools I learned have proved invaluable to me as I have faced even greater challenges throughout my life. And I return to therapy whenever I need an objective third party to help me realistically assess my situational challenges. I guess you could say I’m in recovery. 

This kind of thing doesn’t work for my son who has bipolar disorder. Not at all. The recovery model doesn’t work all that well for a subset of the population who suffer from addiction, either, as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s tragic death demonstrated. 

In “The Lie of Focusing on Those with Serious Mental Illness,” Dr. John Grohol argued that we should treat all mental illness equally.  I respectfully disagree. We need to provide help and hope to families in crisis, before the next Newtown, before the next (insert location of most recent mass shooting). Our current system of forced treatment—prison—or no treatment—homelessness—must end.


Liza Long, aka the Anarchist Soccer Mom, is a writer, educator, mental health advocate, and mother of four children. She loves her Steinway, her kids,and her day job, not necessarily in that order. Her book “The Price of Silence: A Mom’s Perspective on Mental Illness” will be released by Hudson Street Press in August 2014. The views expressed on this blog (originally featured on the Anarchist Soccer Mom) are entirely her own and in no way reflect the views of her employer (or anyone else, for that matter).

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