SAMHSA Administrator: Shift focus of national mental health dialogue from blame to social inclusion

October 26, 2011
Written by Shannon Eliot

In the opening keynote of the Alternatives conference in Orlando on Wednesday, SAMHSA Administrator Pamela Hyde urged attendees to start new conversations about mental health and recovery by shedding the traditional negative focus often displayed by media in favor of a positive one.

After sharing sobering statistics on mental health cost and impact worldwide, Hyde cited multiple reasons why individuals shun the idea of seeking mental health treatment. Part of the problem, she said, lies in the fact that many are fearful of others finding out about their conditions or being institutionalized.

And these fears aren't unfounded. In fact, surveys show that 30 percent of individuals would think less of a person who has an addiction, and 20 percent would think less of a person who is in recovery from an addiction, according to Hyde.

Because reality is much more nuanced than those numbers, Hyde said, there is a real need for constant national dialogue about mental health. However, we only seem to have those important discussions in the wake of tragedies.

"When does the county get revved up about behavioral health issues?" Hyde asked. "It's when somebody dies. It's committing suicide in a dramatic way. It's when Columbine happens. Or when Virginia Tech happens. That's when the whole country gets galvanized around talking about behavioral health issues. And what you see is a lot of individual blame."

This blame then leads to misunderstandings about mental health and substance abuse, which are manifested in prejudice, discrimination, and damaging media portrayals of help centers, according to Hyde.

“We also hear institutional blame with discussions around welfare systems driven by substance abuse and mental illness issues. People ask, 'What was wrong with that mental health center?' or 'Why did the court that let that guy out?' There's always the effort to blame and find some reason for tragedies that have happened."

For us to progress as a society and have a physically and mentally healthier population, Hyde said, we must first eliminate the element of blame in our dialogue.

"We need an approach that engages everybody, based on science and fact and not misunderstanding," Hyde said. "It needs to be based on social inclusion, healthier communities, and healthier people."

Hyde wants systems to frame their thinking in a way that looks at how we can have overall healthy people, not just end disorders.

"There is too much potential in people to lock up or keep out," Hyde said. "There is too much insight to ignore. There's actually insight that we need to grab onto, and it's too costly as a society not to support recovery. That's the conversation that we want to have."

By the numbers:

  • 50: Percentage of U.S. adults who will develop mental health illness in their lifetime
  • 11 million: Number of people who consider, plan, or attempt suicide each year
  • 36,000: Number of people who die from suicide each year
  • 45: Percentage of people who saw a primary care physician within one month before suicide death without any discussion of suicide issues
  • 8: Number of times someone with depression is more likely to commit suicide than the general population
  • 25: Percentage of women who will be victims of intimate partner violence
  • 24: Age at which 75% of all lifetime mental health cases have begun
  • 20.8 million: Number of adults aged 18 or over with substance abuse orders in the past year

Data from Centers for Disease Control