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Mental Health Focus of Senate Subcommittee Hearing

On November 4, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Subcommittee on Substance Abuse heard testimony on a report released by the President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health.

Testifying on behalf of the President’s Commission, Stephen Mayberg summarized the findings of the report, which is titled Achieving the Promise: Transforming Mental Health Care in America. He also detailed a number of recommendations for federal and state policymakers: 1) Federal and local mental health programs should shift toward consumer and family-driven services; 2) Mental health services should be “culturally competent” because minorities and people in rural areas have limited and poor access to care; 3) Mental health programs should emphasize early intervention and disability prevention; 4) Primary care physicians should receive more training in mental health diagnosis and treatment, and there should be a greater focus on mental health in schools, child welfare programs, and the criminal and juvenile justice systems; 5) More resources should be allocated to research mental health prevention and treatment; and 6) The mental health care system should rely more on technology to improve access to information.

Charles Curie of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration said that a transformation of the mental health system “will require a shift in the beliefs of most Americans…Everyone from public policymakers to consumers and family members must come to understand that mental health is a vital and integral part of overall health. Along with this new way of thinking, Americans must learn to address mental health disorders with the same urgency as other medical problems.”

President of the National Mental Health Association, Michael Faenza, lamented, “Although the Commission has provided a compelling vision of the elements of a transformed mental health system, it has not laid out a roadmap for how the transformation it prescribes might be realized.” He went on to list a number of issues that Congress must address in reforming the mental health system, including: implementing programs to provide family-driven, community-based mental health care to children and youth; fostering mental health promotion and early intervention in schools; reducing the fragmentation in mental health services; integrating primary health and mental health care; and training racial and ethnic minority health professionals to meet the needs of diverse populations.

The subcommittee also heard testimony from Ann Buchanan, whose son has struggled with mental illness since he was sixteen. Ms. Buchanan talked about the excellent mental health services her son received as a youth that were ended abruptly when he turned eighteen. “The sad reality is that thousands of families every year face the enormous challenge of having a child ‘age out’ of adolescent treatment and service programs,” she said. Ms. Buchanan lauded the Commission’s work, but noted, “…This report does not contain any specific findings or recommendations with respect to services designed to address the transition from the child-adolescent system to the adult system.”

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