SAMHSA’s new general embarks on a new mission


Elinore F. McCance-Katz, MD, PhD, is by turns passionate and impatient, empathetic and brusquely no-nonsense. She is a person who knows what she wants to do and knows how to do it.

Accomplishing that on the idealogic battlefield of a presidential appointment is the focus of her considerable energy.

Dr. McCance-Katz carries the newly minted banner of assistant secretary for mental health and substance use. Her troops comprise more than 100 related federal agencies. Her charge is at once simple and mind-numbingly complex: Overhaul the nation’s mental health care system. Her strategy: People with serious mental illnesses and substance use disorders need prompt, evidence-based treatment for their illnesses before they can begin to heal.

It’s the precise opposite of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s prior targeting, which focused heavily on providing healthy social support for patients with mental health and substance abuse disorders. To Dr. McCance-Katz’s way of thinking, dollars spent on such are largely wasted, because terribly ill people simply can’t function in healthy ways until they begin to get better. Why, she reasoned, should the government waste money on peer-support services while ignoring – or even openly rejecting – evidence-based psychiatric treatment paradigms that are proven to help heal?

It’s this philosophical dichotomy – combined with what she perceived as a palpable dismissal of psychiatric science – that drove her away from her first SAMHSA appointment as the agency’s first chief medical officer. She aired her frustration in an editorial, published 2 years ago in Psychiatric Times.

“There is a perceptible hostility toward psychiatric medicine: a resistance to addressing the treatment needs of those with serious mental illness and a questioning by some at SAMHSA as to whether mental disorders even exist – for example, is psychosis just a ‘different way of thinking for some experiencing stress?’ … Nowhere in SAMHSA’s strategic initiatives is psychiatric treatment of mental illness a priority. The occasional vague reference to treatment is no substitute for the urgent need for programs that address these issues.”

In the same letter, she outlined a new battle plan, one that includes funding for better outpatient treatments, more psychiatric hospital beds, clinician education and support, and money to beef up the dwindling supply of psychiatrists, advanced-practice psychiatric nurses, and psychologists.

In an exclusive video interview, Dr. McCance-Katz sat down with MDedge Psychiatry to discuss the path that brought her to this station and the long road ahead.

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