Policy Public health psychiatry Systems

Writing Down Words.

It’s been five months since I’ve posted anything… and not because I had nothing to say. As Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine sang:

But the words get in the way
There’s so much I want to say
But it’s locked deep inside

… except it was Covid that was breaking my heart. I still feel like I have aphasia when people ask me what happened and how I am doing. At least now I am able to blurt out some emotion words (“I was angry, but it’s really because I was profoundly sad”).

In the meantime, work I did during my tenure as a medical director at King County got some press: Why King County mental health facilities decline 27% of referrals. (The only reason why I agreed to have my photo taken for the Seattle Times piece was to give my dad something to smile at.) Here’s what I learned from this experience:

Write stuff down and share it. I left my position at King County in 2019. I wrote a report on this data every year between 2015 and 2019. I sent it out to relevant organizations and officials, whether they welcomed it or not. The Seattle Times journalist somehow discovered the 2019 edition of this report earlier this year. I am grateful that she found it interesting enough to publish it in the local paper of record. If you think it’s important, write it down and share it. Someone will eventually find it useful. (I suppose this is an underlying tenet of those of us who still write in blogs.)

Sometimes it’s easier to talk about stuff once you’re outside of the organization. Government, at all levels, has its communication protocols. Depending on where you sit in the hierarchy and what your status is, you may not be permitted to talk to the press. Or you are counseled to adhere to specific talking points. (I recall sitting for an interview with a local weekly publication; I was only allowed to speak to the journalist if one of the county communication officers sat next to me.) For this, my speech was more free.

People want to learn. The photographer and I met at a public staircase. I said, “I probably shouldn’t smile, since this isn’t a joyful topic.” She had a general sense of the article and asked questions. By the end of our time together, she learned about psychiatric hospital data and I learned about the experiences of newspaper photographers.

Ezra Klein interviewed Dr. Thomas Insel, a former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, on his podcast (“The psychiatrist and public health expert Thomas Insel discusses how mental illness is a medical problem that requires social solutions.” Dr. Insel’s formulation here is catchy, though oversimplified.) I appreciated Ezra asking Dr. Insel to clarify and elaborate on some of his statements. Dr. Insel and I, though both psychiatrists, have had different professional experiences. As a result, I offered the following reactions to Ezra and his team:

There is an overlap between people with serious mental illnesses and poverty, which is where social solutions may be the most effective. People with serious mental illnesses (e.g., schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, etc.) are often at greater risk of poverty. For example, someone with a diagnosis of schizophrenia may be unable to sustain employment, accrue hospital bills that they cannot pay, and end up receiving more attention from law enforcement. Conversely, poverty can exacerbate serious mental illnesses. For example, adolescents may run away from home due to domestic violence or other dangers at home. If these teenagers do develop psychiatric symptoms, they often have limited support to seek and access services (health care or otherwise). Social solutions (e.g., housing, supported employment, etc.) may only work for individuals who experience both serious mental illness and poverty. Many of the interventions Dr. Insel listed–clubhouses, job training, supportive housing–are available only to those who have Medicaid insurance, which, as you know, requires low income.

Psychiatric treatments in the US, for better or worse, occur within an American/European frame. Dr. Insel extolled the virtues of medications and psychotherapy (and, to be clear, he’s not wrong—the current evidence base supports the use of both for many psychiatric conditions), except these interventions have Western European origins (hence his reference to Freud). Different ethnic cultures and American subcultures may be uncomfortable with or outright reject the American system of diagnoses and treatments. There is evidence that indicates that Black people are more likely be receive diagnoses of schizophrenia and antisocial personality disorder, which remain two of the most stigmatizing diagnoses in psychiatry. This isn’t limited to race only; women seem more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety and depression. (Is this a remnant of antiquated ideas related to wandering uteruses? or because women are more likely to seek medical help for their concerns?) The traditional health care system has expectations about how people will present and express their concerns; it also has expectations about how people will receive and accept care. From an intersectional perspective, this may contribute to why certain populations are less likely to seek and accept psychiatric services.

Policies and culture are intertwined. I appreciated Ezra’s commentary about the role (or lack thereof) of policy as it relates to isolation and serious mental illnesses. I agree that that policies can only go so far to help promote social support and connection. Perhaps Ezra and Dr. Insel were trying to discern how current US culture reflects a lonelier society, and how policies can or cannot influence US culture to help reverse this? Policies come out of the current culture, but policies can also impact culture (e.g., women’s suffrage, civil rights, abortion bans, etc.).

Though it’s hard to prove the success of prevention, that may be the best way to address all three issues above. Because most of my work has been in the “deep end” of the system, I have become an ardent supporter of prevention and early intervention. (At the risk of sounding really self-righteous, I’d love to work myself out of a job!) So many people I’ve had the privilege of caring for have experienced terrible physical, mental, and sexual trauma as children and adolescents. What would it be like if people weren’t molested or assaulted when they were kids? What would it be like if pregnant people didn’t experience violence from their partners? What would happen if youth who identify as LGBTQ+ experienced acceptance and support from their families? What if emotional self-regulation skills were part of prenatal care and school curricula? These prevention efforts can be folded into policy, which can influence culture. Reducing (minimizing? eliminating?) poverty through policy could improve outcomes not only for mental health, but for physical health. (The Spirit Level by Wilkinson and Pickett provide some compelling data about this.) Ensuring that psychiatric interventions and treatments from non-American/European frames are funded and evaluated for efficacy not only increases treatment options, but these non-Western treatments may also appeal to different populations.

Funding for the mental health and substance use disorder systems is complicated; it took me years as a medical director to understand how it works at the county level. Funding systems should follow the clinical delivery of services, but, unfortunately, the delivery of psychiatric services (as with the rest of health care) is based on funding systems. This makes implementing services, accessing care, and improving outcomes needlessly challenging for actual human beings. While the 988 line is an encouraging development, I worry that, if the crisis system is the most robust part of the psychiatric care system, then crisis care will be the only place where one can get quality care. And no one should have to experience one of the worst days in their life to receive good care.

I can’t help but observe how my reactions above can also apply to how the US has responded (or not) to the Covid pandemic. I continue to grasp at words.