FISCALLY SOLVENT BUT MORALLY BANKRUPT – 

July 9, 2021 – How did the U.S. get into this mess? Massive and rapid deinstitutionalization of people with mental health issues began in the late 1950s for several reasons: partly because effective antipsychotics had been discovered; partly as a humanitarian response to the horrors of the overcrowded “snake pit” state psychiatric hospitals; partly as a cost-cutting method (since mental health was often the biggest and most tempting item in state budgets).

The “new approach to mental illness” that President John F. Kennedy called for in a 1963 speech, which resulted in his signing into law the Community Mental Health Centers Act later that year, was a response to the great disruption caused by the rapid closure of the huge state hospitals. Community services were meant to provide a better life for people with mental illness at less cost to the states.

My first job working in a community mental health center in 1973 in New York City was thrilling. Patients who had languished for decades in state hospitals were able to enjoy much more normal lives with the benefits of medication and inclusion in the community. The U.S. became the world leader in community psychiatry and I was proud to be a psychiatrist.

That began to change shortly after Ronald Regan was elected president in 1980. He ended earmarking of federal funds for this system of community mental health centers and instead substituted block grants to the states that they could use at their discretion. Almost all the states acted badly, cutting taxes rather than using the federal funding as before for community mental health.  Eventually, deinstitutionalization turned into reinstitutionalization as prisons replaced hospitals as the biggest line item in state budgets. Under Reagan, the U.S. quickly went from having the best system of community psychiatric care in the world to the worst, and things have further deteriorated ever since.

The care of people with severe mental illness is necessarily a public responsibility that has been neglected in our primarily for-profit private health care system. The United States has shirked this public responsibility more than any other developed nation on earth. The Biden plan is a sad lost opportunity to play catch-up on desperately needed mental health services and its exclusion of mental health means there is no hope in sight.

Mahatma Gandhi once said that a nation’s greatness is judged by how it treats its weakest members. By this standard, the United States is morally bankrupt and the very opposite of great.

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