Sec. Price Calls Serious Mental Illnesses A “Silent Epidemic”: Phone Call About Violence Sparks Debate

(I was surprised and flattered when Sec. Price mentioned yesterday how my book had influenced his thinking. His comment came 6 minutes into his opening remarks.)

(9-1-17) Serious mental illnesses remain a “silent epidemic” in our nation, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said yesterday in his opening remarks at the inaugural meeting of the Interdepartmental Serious Mental Illness Coordinating Committee (ISMICC). Regardless of your political leanings, Dr. Price’s passionate commitment to improving our federal mental health care system was inspiring.

I was equally impressed with how Assistant Secretary Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz chaired the first session. (I intend to post her comments next week if I can secure a copy.)

Dr. McCance-Katz made it clear that there will be a shift in priorities at SAMHSA under her leadership in keeping with the marching orders that were given to her by the 21st Century Cures Act, which contained a modified version of Rep. Tim Murphy’s (R.-Pa.) Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act.

While there was much discussion at yesterday’s meeting, it was too early for the group to reach any specific recommendations. The most lively debate came after D. J. Jaffe , author of Insane Consequences, called in by telephone during the public comment period to complain about a lack of mention at the meeting about violence. This happened during the last hour of the day long session. (If you will recall, Rep. Murphy decided to write his bill after the Newtown shootings.)

Dr. McCance-Katz and the Treatment Advocacy Center’s Executive Director John Snook both said that while the vast majority of individuals with mental illnesses are not dangerous and much more likely to harm themselves than others, a percentage of those with SMI’s that go untreated are, in fact, more violent. Dr. McCance-Katz added that to brush over that fact is “disingenuous.”

Those statements clearly made some committee members uncomfortable.

The only member of the public, who attended the meeting, was Amanda Woodward, who asked the committee to focus on persons with mental illnesses who are being inappropriately incarcerated. Her comments prompted TAC’s Snook to warn that our nation is at a tipping point. Money that could be spent on mental health is being diverted into building bigger jails with psych units, in effect, making jails the main providers for treatment of those with SMIs.

That spending on more and more jails is wrong.

In addition to speaking, Ms. Woodward, a Virginia nurse who has worked in jails, signed a letter presented to the committee by Families for Treatment of Serious Mental Illness, in response to committee member  Elyn Saks’ recent article in Politico about giving patients more say about whether or not they will accept treatment. Saks argues in her thought provoking piece that offering a choice might, in fact, result in more individuals electing to undergo treatment while forced treatment drives them away.

I have reprinted the letter below. 

Dear Members of the US Department of Health and Human Services Interdepartmental Serious Mental Illness Coordinating Committee: 

We, family members and advocates of the 4% who have a serious mental illness, would respectfully like the opportunity to supply you with a rebuttal to Elyn Saks’ article, “CONSENT DILEMMA: It’s hard to keep mental-health patients on their medications. Would it help to let them say “no”?” published in Politico on August 9, 2017.

We’d also like to respectfully remind you the reason the US Department of Health and Human Services Interdepartmental Serious Mental Illness Coordinating Committee exists is that we, the family members of the 4%, along with Representative Timothy Murphy, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson and her 206 fellow cosponsors of the “Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act,” decided to speak out and get real about serious mental illness and the horrific suffering, death, and criminalization of our loved ones.

Please read the gut-wrenching comments (attached) sent in to Teresa Pasquini’s “Shattering Silence” campaign ( You’ll see that many of our loved ones are homeless, jailed, tortured in solitary confinement, committing suicide, and being brought out of prison in body bags.

Approximately 50% of individuals with schizophrenia, and 40% with bipolar disorder have symptoms of anosognosia, or a lack of insight into their illness. Anosognosia is the single largest reason why people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder refuse medication or do not seek treatment at all.

We acknowledge that, with treatment, some people are able to regain insight into their illness and accept treatment. However, as many as 50% of those with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder never do.

One example of the 50% who don’t ever regain insight is Jeanne Gore’s son. He has schizoaffective disorder and has been hospitalized 43 times over the past 13 years. All but one of those hospitalizations was involuntary because he has no awareness of his illness. He’s been jailed twice, homeless, missing, and beaten up by police and members of the community. When Jeanne got AOT legislation passed in Maine, she was finally able to see her son living successfully in the community. He’s an artist and a musician with a brilliant mind and a generous heart who is now in his own apartment living a good life. As long as he has a court order for treatment, he’ll continue to take medication, all the while insisting that he does not have a mental illness.

Joy Torres, who suffers from schizophrenia, is a consumer and a family member with children who also have schizophrenia. She says, “Being forced to take my medication saves me and all around me. Not being forced would be life threatening.”

Let’s look at the facts:

Prevalence and Treatment Rates*

·       8.1 million adults with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder mental illness (3.3% of the population)+
      5.4 million — approximate number with severe bipolar disorder (2.2% of the population), 51% untreated+
      2.7 million — approximate number with schizophrenia (1.1% of the population), 40% untreated+

·       3.9 million — approximate number untreated in any given year (1.6% of the population)+

Consequences of Non-treatment*

·       169,000 homeless people with serious mental illness**

·       383,000 inmates with mental illness in jails and prisons

·       50% — estimated percentage of individuals with schizophrenia or bipolar who attempt suicide during their lifetimes

·       10% — estimated percentage of homicides involving an offender with serious mental illness
(approximately 1,425 per year at 2014 homicide rates)

·       29% — estimated percentage of family homicides associated with serious mental illness

·       50% — estimated percentage of mass killings associated with serious mental illness

* Numbers and percentages of US adults
+National Institute of Mental Health, 2016
**2015 Annual Homeless Assessment Report

Would you deny treatment to someone who suffered a stroke, was having a heart attack, had Alzheimer’s disease or was otherwise incapacitated?  No. We argue that not treating those who are too sick to consent to treatment carries the potential of much greater harm  than giving involuntary or, better yet, nonvoluntary treatment.

Dominic Sisti, PhD, an assistant professor of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, recently proposed a new category for psychiatric patients to justify instances of compulsory treatment.

“The current strict limitations on involuntary treatment risk allowing people with psychiatric illness to go untreated and experience worsening symptoms despite compelling evidence that they would want to be well,” said Sisti. “A patient may have previously expressed a wish to be treated while in crisis—in which case, a treatment framed as involuntary is actually something else. The proposed concept of nonvoluntary treatment provides a more precise categorization of such cases.”

Patients covered by this concept would include those who have expressly indicated a desire to be treated when needed, those who have been living successfully in recovery from mental illness and clearly wish to continue doing so, and those who have difficulty escaping severe drug addiction despite an evident wish to become addiction-free.

The “nonvoluntary” category could also cover patients presenting with their first psychotic episode—due to undiagnosed schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, for example—who essentially have no idea what is happening to them.

The evidence to justify nonvoluntary treatment could include advance directives already provided by the patient to caregivers, as well as testimony from family members, case managers, and primary caregivers—and even the patient’s own social media posts.

The nonvoluntary treatment concept would still involve a degree of ethical risk, as the evidence of a patient’s authentic wishes might be ambiguous. “But,” Sisti said, “this challenge is not much different from those found in other areas of medicine where a patient seems incapacitated and caregivers and family members must use their own judgment concerning patient care. Moreover, there is potentially much greater harm in not treating these very sick patients compared to providing nonvoluntary treatment.”

 In conclusion, we’re promulgating making it easier, rather than harder, to access appropriate treatment and care.   Please reply and continue this discussion with us. We’d appreciate hearing your thoughts about 1)Treating those who are too sick to consent to treatment; 2)A nonvoluntary treatment concept.

 Thank you for your service.

 Respectfully Submitted,

 Jeanne Gore, advocate, mother of someone with a serious mental illness, President, Families for Treatment of Serious Mental Illness, “We Are Their Voices”

 Teresa Pasquini, Recovering Angry Mom & Co-Founder Mental Illness FACTS, Family and Consumer True Stories

 Dede Ranahan, A Safe Place to Talk About Mental Illness in Our Families


 Joy Torres, mother and someone with a sevre MENTAL illness not a simple mental health issue, Chair of Membership, Families for Treatment of Serious Mental Illness

 Mary Murphy, a mother in Springfield Oregon

 Candy DeWitt, Voices of Mothers and Others

 Martie Rhoden Bessler, Mother and Advocate for son and others with SM

 Ray and Connie Maternick, parents of a son who struggles with SMI

 Laura Pogliano, Director, Parents For Care, Baltimore, MD

 Kathy Day, MPA, family member of 25 year old with treatment-resistant paranoid schizophrenia

 Cheri VanSant, mother to adult son with bipolar disorder with psychosis in mania/ anosognosia. Only after involuntary treatment was my child stable long enough to stay out of a hospital for the last two years. It took 18 years with a lot of lost cognition to make that happen. 18 lost years.

Ruth Medina, M.S Rehabilitation Counseling, sibling of person with mental illness

 Anne Francisco, bereaved mother of son who deserved treatment but got incarceration and death

 Wendy Brown, mother of a son with bipolar with psychosis and OCD

 Sandra Turner Mother of 23 year old Son who desperately sought treatment in Plattsburgh NY, was Sent Away, and dove headfirst into a freight train less than two hours later

 Diann King, a family member of a loved one with a brain disease

 Marcie Sohara mother to a beloved son with a brain disease

 Lisa Powell a family member of a loved one with SMI

 Dan West, Father of a son with a brain disorder

 Kimberlee West, Mother of a son with a brain disorder. Also Sister of a smi brother who committed suicide

 Laurie S. Turley, family member of a loved one with serious mental illness

 Kenneth O. Turley, family member of a loved one with serious mental illness

 Roseann Pruett Mother of twins and widow of SMI

 Angie Geyser, mother and advocate for child with SMI

 Alison Monroe, mother of a dual-diagnosis person with schizophrenia

 Nina McDaniel, mother and advocate for Son with Schizophrenia from Oley, PA

 Janet Hays, President – Healing Minds NOLA

Amanda Woodward, PMHRN-BC, advocate for the seriously mentally ill

 Sabrina Barton, mother of a child with SMI

 Gloria Hill Florida Guardian Advocate, have son with serious psych brain disease

 Anthony and Cynthia Hernandez,

 Lynn Nanos, LICSW, Mobile Psychiatric Emergency Clinician

 Sylvia Mascareno Charters, MOMI of Florida, son with bipolar with psychosis

 Susan Inman, family caregiver

 Helen Rees, RN, psychiatric nurse and advocate for the seriously mentally ill

 Heather McKenzie, Mother, Mental illness advocate

 Ruth Johnston, mother of incarcerated schizophrenic son

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.