Mental Health Reforms Will Come: But Not From The Top

It’s the time of the year when news organizations broadcast and publish lists from 2012. The July movie shooting in Aurora, Colorado, that left twelve dead and 58 wounded, and the December killings at the Sandy Hook Elementary school that claimed the lives 20 children and six adults, are on every Top Ten 2012 Story List.

On NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday, President Barack Obama promised to put his “full weight” behind legislation aimed at preventing gun violence. One of his top priorities, he said, will be pushing for increased background checks and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity bullet  magazines.

“It is not enough for us to say, `This is too hard so we’re not going to try,’” Obama said.

Sadly, there was little mention on the news show about the need for meaningful mental health reform. A cynic might conclude that the only change that seems in the works is further stigmatizing of persons with mental illness by targeting them in background checks.

After the Virginia Tech massacre that left 33 dead and 17 wounded, the Virginia state legislature and governor promised reforms. Legislation was passed that loosened involuntary commitment laws and $42 million in new spending over a two-year period for innovative mental health programs was approved.

What happened?

A year after approving that $42 million increase, the state legislature and governor cut $50 million from the Virginia mental health budget.  A statewide study later showed that the loosening of involuntary commitment laws had virtually no impact, in part, because those responsible for administering the new standard either ignored it or didn’t enforce it because of a lack of community based services.

Is what happened in Virginia prologue?

The President has asked Vice President Joe Biden to develop recommendations to prevent future Sandy Hook tragedies. Will Biden investigate the need for mental health reforms?  If so, he will not be the first. In July 2003, President George Bush’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health published its recommendations for “transforming mental health care” in America. While the report did much to encourage the idea of “recovery,” there was no serious effort in Congress to enact the commission’s recommendations.

People are dying because of our broken system.  Our jails and prisons have become our new mental asylums. Homeless men and women, who are psychotic, roam our streets tortured by their own thoughts.

My thirty-four years as a reporter in Washington D.C. have made me cynical about our elected leaders’ interest and desire to fix our system. Yet, I enter 2013 with hope.

Since publication of my book, CRAZY, in 2006, I have visited 46 states and toured more than 100 treatment programs. In every community that I have visited, I have met individuals who are working hard to make a difference. These advocates are not famous. You did not see them on any news shows offering their opinions about Sandy Hook.  They are not paid or trained mental health professionals.

In my community, there is Trudy Harsh, who started the Brain Foundation. Betsy Greer and Dotti McGee have spent years promoting better mental health services here. My friend, Bob Cluck, lost his son to mental illness earlier this year. Yet, he still finds the courage to speak to Crisis Intervention Team classes at our local police department. In South Carolina, Rebecca Schaper and Kyle Tekiela have produced a powerful documentary, A Sister’s Call.  In Florida, Ron and Lin Wilensky founded Dave’s House.  The Wilensky’s goal is to open 20 houses for persons with mental illnesses by 2020. In California Muffy Walker launched the International Bipolar Foundation and my good friend, Carla Jacobs, has spent decades fighting for better services.

The list of advocates  is a long one. Want more? Graham Champion in Montgomery, Alabama; Terri and Bart Wasilenko in Auburn, New York;  Clarice Raichel in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

Most of these advocates didn’t choose mental illness. Someone whom they loved got sick and they responded. These are the people who give me hope. They are the ones who will bring about change. It will happen, not because of some well-meaning federal commission that produces yet another report. It will happen because they will make it happen.

My goal for 2013 is a simple one. We need to hold President Obama to his own words when it comes to mental health.  “It is not enough for us to say, `This is too hard so we’re not going to try.”

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. Well said. My very first blog for HuffPo was on Obama’s failed promises: 

    “In answer to a question in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, President Obama publicly unequivocally asserted his desire to include treatment for mental illness as part of healthcare reform. And he has mobilized public opinion against the discriminatory practices of private insurers.  But when it comes to discrimination against the mentally ill, the federal government’s own program puts private insurers to shame. And Obama has yet to support the one bill, H.R. 619, that could fix it.”

    It made front page of HuffPo and is as true today as it was in 2009

  2. Thank you Pete for all you have done and continue to do to convince people that we must stand together and demand health care of the quality available to people with other biological illnesses for people with mental illnesses.  I believe that together we can make a difference – look what MADD did for DUIs. 

  3. In reference to President Bush’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health (2003), Michael Hogan (current NYS Office of Mental Health Director) chaired the committee in an attempt to make a fundamental change in mental health care in our nation. Like you infer, Pete, there was a lot of positive energy put towards person centered recovery but the commission’s recommendations went nowhere. Mental health legislation has the lowest priority at the local, county, state and federal levels. Congress probably slid it under the rug when any mention of a transformation of a disjointed mental health care system was brought up. As for Michael Hogan, he has tried to make changes for persons working toward recovery at the state and county levels in New York. Unfortunately, his hands are tied with the lack of federal funding. I have heard him speak at 3 NAMI NYS Education Conferences over the past few years. His ideas show vision but they are blowing in the wind without serious financial federal help.

    You are right when you conclude that change will come from grass root organizations and not from the President. NAMI National, NAMI NYS and NAMI Cayuga County have given me a voice to fight the good fight for my loved one and many, many others that rely on advocates seeking to reduce stigma and  improving the quaility of their lives. Thanks for taking on all that you do to help persons with mental illness and their families and friends.

  4. nancine.lwo says

    Pete, you made two compelling comments that stand out as flags for the public at large. “People are dying”; and “most advocates don’t choose mental illness”.
        The reminder for grassroots action is tied directly to your observations in the “Spirituality” piece in which you highlight the fact that religious organizations are doing very little in assisting with the spiritual well-being of the mentally ill, or in educating themselves on illnesses that affect the spirit, or religiosity.
         After many died of AIDS, our nation finally woke up. Eventually, our government decided to fund big monies here and abroad to combat the disease.
    Slowly, the stigma toward AIDS and also homosexuality began to slowly recede.
          From a common sense point of view, what a few sectors of American society did for AIDS, can be done for mental illness. Because the broken mental health system is deeply imbedded with roots stemming decades, unlike AIDS, which was jumped on right away before its mistreatments festered, it is a difficult challenge of many hard steps and time consuming backbreaking work, but is do-able if people want the changes bad enough.
          To encourage grass roots advocacy,it may be helpful to celebrate successes.
    Stigma seems to be the biggest complaint lately, becoming a household word.
    Since the Disabilities Act of 1990, stigma has taken a huge dip. When the mental health hygeine laws were enacted in the 1970’s stigma began it’s backseat roll.
    Jumping back to the late 1800’s, when some of us had great-grandparents living,
    there were successful ant-stigma movements to move the mentally ill from circuses where folks would pay to see them for entertainment! The irony is the lack of good medical treatment causes stigma, for if the mentally ill were treated to the threshold of remission or recovery, there would be little to stigmatize about!
    You can’t put a scarlet letter on your co-worker who just got a promotion, because
    he needs to take a pill with his lunch!
           Some sociologists are making the current prediction that prejudice toward
    homosexuality and mental illnesses will disappear as the x generation, and the
    college aged of today grow into maturity, and the aging ignorant unwilling to yield to cultural openness, relinquish their attitudinal authority, and eventually die out.
     I have yet to meet a person under 30, who has firm stigmatizing prejudices toward the mentally ill, and that is such a refreshing fact
    and one that should give hope and willpower to those who are aching in their heart to see the mentally ill ‘get a fair shake’.
             As “most advocates do not choose mental illness”, it would be extremely beneficial if concerned individuals and professionals who “DO choose mental illness” were to become advocates to these advocates. When you don’t choose something, and it is burdened upon you, and it is not at all in your life plans, at  best, it can be disconcerting. Just to think of all the parents who would be following their chosen dreams and aspirations, but are now not – becuse  – boom – in the middle of their lives mental illness pops up in their child, and life courses are changed forever,
    How stressful to not choose.
             These volunteers that never signed up – everyday people with the same
    American dreams as every other family, need the embrace, support, inclusion
    understanding and complete empathy from every family who was lucky not to be touched by mental health issues.
              The churches and schools can help bring this about. They havn’t yet.
               Perhaps President Obama can set aside a national ‘Families of Mentally Ill Day’ It wouldn’t cost much, would raise awareness, and aside from hanging a medal on parents who give their heart and soul to their ill child, often by sacrificing all that was once their life, it would pay tribute to them for the health care providers they have become,because of a broken mental health system.   ,   

  5. Lynn Sayyeau says

    Thank again for all you do Pete!  Im still in Vermont advocating as best I can for my son and for others in this community!  I still have hope even though there are days that it looks like there could be none.  !  Im hanging in there and again, thanks for this wonderful website and all you are doing!