By: Paul Gionfriddo, MHA president and CEO
*This statement was also sent as a letter to the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee
As President and CEO of Mental Health America (MHA), the nation’s oldest mental health advocacy organization, I am writing in support of Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz as Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Abuse.
For more than a century, MHA (first as the National Committee for Mental Hygiene and later as the National Mental Health Association) has worked to improve mental health services in the nation, focusing on prevention, early intervention, integrated services, and recovery. Founded by Clifford Beers – who would today be known as a “peer” – we have focused consistently on meeting the needs of our children, on taking mental health treatment out of jails and prisons, and on putting mental health services under the direction of mental health professionals. We see mental health as an essential part of overall health, and created our nation’s signature mental health awareness event – May is Mental Health Month – back in 1949.
Dr. McCance-Katz is an experienced clinician and public administrator, with experience in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Rhode Island. During her time in California and Rhode Island, she worked to conceptualize and implement community-based systems of care that move people away from court houses and jails. She understands that many individuals in public hospitals and jails arrive as forensic patients, many for minor, non-violent offenses. She understands the need to stop this prison-to-hospital pipeline.
She also understands, as did our founder – who gave rise to modern mental health advocacy – the importance of the peer voice and perspective. In her recent work, she included peers as important participants – along with traditional behavioral health clinicians – in the development and implementation of effective systems of care. These systems of care recognize that peers as care team members who have unique qualifications and experience offer the kinds of wrap-around supports that people with mental illnesses often need along pathways to recovery.
Dr. McCance-Katz has a recovery-oriented approach to treatment. She is not content with a custodial care ceiling on services to people with behavioral illnesses, and understands that job training and housing supports are critical parts of recovery-oriented systems. She also appreciates the importance of early identification and intervention for children and adults, and has been a supporter of RAISE.
If confirmed, she will return to a SAMHSA that is different from the agency she left in 2015. Through the efforts of its interim administrator, under the watchful eye of members of Congress, and building on the solid foundation laid by the mental health provisions of the 21st Century Cures Act, SAMHSA is now poised to play an increased role in moving all people with mental health concerns – especially those with serious mental illnesses – along meaningful pathways to recovery.
This first Assistant Secretary will set the tone for this position. It calls for someone with deep experience, a clear vision, and a willingness to push hard for the community-based systems of care we were promised generations ago. It also calls for someone who will ensure that SAMHSA’s programs catalyze national transformation and have an impact beyond the life of the grants, ensuring that cost-effective policies and practices meaningfully inform the decisions of other public and private health care payers and providers, including the other departments of Health and Human Services. MHA encourages the Committee to explore these issues with her. We hope and believe that you will find her responses encouraging, and that she will earn your support.