Senate confirms first mental health czar


The Senate has confirmed Elinore F. McCance-Katz, MD, PhD, as the nation’s first mental health czar.

Dr. McCance-Katz, a psychiatrist, has focused her career largely on addiction treatment, particularly opioid abuse. This expertise has helped her receive the backing of several mental health organizations, including the American Psychiatric Association, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

As leader of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Dr. McCance-Katz is expected to streamline more than 100 federal mental health agencies into a more effective system and to oversee a more than $3.5 billion budget annually. Having previously served as SAMHSA’s chief medical officer, Dr. McCance-Katz once again enters the fray surrounding the agency’s historically poor record of serving people with serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Dr. McCance-Katz stepped down from her chief medical officer role in 2015 after serving 2 years, later penning a piece criticizing the agency’s lack of commitment to understanding – much less implementing – psychiatric treatments based on a medical approach. Instead, she argued, SAMHSA favored non–evidence-based psychosocial interventions.

Despite this, Rep. Tim Murphy (R.-Penn.) – a clinical psychologist and the congressman most responsible for drafting the legislation that created the position – issued a highly critical statement when her nomination was announced earlier this year. He called into question Dr. McCance-Katz’s commitment to the medical model and blamed her in part for the agency’s previous failures.

Dr. McCance-Katz currently serves as the chief medical officer at the Rhode Island Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities, and Hospitals. She also is a professor of psychiatry and human behavior, and professor of behavioral and social sciences at Brown University, Providence, R.I. She is expected to take up her new post as U.S. assistant secretary for mental health and substance use by the fall, according to a SAMHSA spokeperson.

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