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Poor U.S. Mental Health Care Is Confirmed by a Top Authority

Thomas Insel’s new book makes poor mental health care a human rights issue.

Key points

  • One of America’s top mental health leaders, Thomas Insel, condemns present mental health care in his new book.
  • Insel finds that the worst injustice is in serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
  • Insel notes that the nation has a severe shortfall in trained frontline mental health workers.

A momentous event for the mental health field occurred with the publication of Thomas Insel’s new book: Healing: Our Path from Mental Illness to Mental Health (2022).1 His severe condemnation of present mental health care cannot help but shake the very foundation of the field, especially when he avers that present care is so bad that it flouts basic human rights.

Why should it have such an impact when most already recognize the shambles that mental health represents in this country? Insel is the highly respected former Director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the federal agency most responsible for mental care in America.

•	CC-PD-Mark •	PD US Government
National Institute of Mental Health: official picture of Thomas R. Insel, Director, National Institute of Mental Health
Source: • CC-PD-Mark • PD US Government

While addressing all mental health care, he finds the worst injustice in serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Poor care for these patients usually stems from “de-institutionalization” (from mental institutions) in the mid-20th century. Insel better captures the problem: serious mental illnesses underwent “trans-institutionalization.”

The patients did not go into the communities as planned. They went to jail and/or became homeless, care almost completely unavailable.

It’s not just their poor mental health care. They die, on average, about 25 years earlier than other patients, often from the common ravages of heart disease, hypertension, and cancer. Why? They don’t receive medical care either.

Despite the dramatic advances in neuroscience research, where NIMH is at the vanguard, Insel was troubled by persisting poor mental health care at all levels. This led him to branch out and seek patients’ assessments of the problem. He told us of his surprise, saying, “I heard this refrain throughout: mental health care is broken, our house is on fire, we are indeed in a crisis—a crisis of care.”

Ironies pervade the book. For example, stunning scientific progress has not translated to patients. Mental health care is delivered to patients only in crisis (rather than as ongoing care), and—most striking—treatments work but are not delivered to patients.

After a compelling diagnosis of the crisis in mental health care, Insel stumbles in advising on how to correct it. Surprisingly, given his espousal of a greatly widened biopsychosocial approach, particularly for expanded environmental and social care, he retains the reductionistic stance that mental disorders are fundamentally brain diseases.

He recognizes that none have been found to explain mental illness but insists we just need more research and more time to find the putative explanatory diseases.1,2 He offers some hope for psychiatry’s almost exclusive focus on finding brain diseases in reviewing that 30 percent of patients with autism spectrum disorder have some genomic basis.

Regarding the manpower needed to correct the actual day-to-day care problem for Americans, Insel’s approach is uneven. He makes a good start in recognizing the severe shortage of psychiatry practitioners. Indeed, for psychiatry’s most proven clinical approach over the last 25 years, collaborative care, he is quite honest, “…it required a workforce that did not exist.”

He points out that a total of only 41,740 psychiatrists exist at present. But he makes a strange turn and proposes that the mental health workforce is large enough. Yet, the data he provides indicate a severe deficiency of mental health workers capable of frontline care: there is a combined total of only 143,630 psychologists, psychiatrists, psychiatric nurse practitioners, and child psychiatrists.

That’s nearly an order of magnitude short of what we need to provide primary mental health care for over 300,000,000 Americans. Insel correctly notes that another 549,330 mental healthcare workers exist, but they are not trained for frontline mental health care, for example, licensed clinical social workers, marriage and family therapists, licensed mental health counselors, and school counselors.

We thus have a severe shortfall in trained frontline mental health workers. Making the problem worse, as I’ve noted before in these contributions and as Insel also emphasized, the result is that primary care clinicians conduct most mental health care in the U.S., in the range of 75 percent of it.3-5 But they lack training in mental health care.

These problems aside, the book has launched a figurative tsunami by highlighting poor U.S. mental health care as a human rights issue. And there’s another reason to read the book: patients’ stories of their severe mental illnesses will tug at your heartstrings.

The reader comes away with a true appreciation of their plight and what’s needed for successful care—long-term community-based care. Further, Insel’s sharing of his own empathic responses to the patients and family members tells the reader he is truly a man who cares, someone to listen to.

This book is a must-read for patients, health care professionals, policymakers, taxpayers, and everyone else interested in mental health care, now magnified by COVID-19.


Insel TR. Healing--Our Path from Mental Illness to Mental Health: Penguin Press; 2022.

Insel TR. Balancing Immediate Needs with Future Innovation. Director's Blog. Bethesda, MD: NIMH; 2012.

Wang P, Demler O, Olfson M, Pincus HA, Wells KB, Kessler R. Changing profiles of service sectors used for mental health care in the United States. AmJ Psychiatry 2006;163:1187-98.

Melek S, Norris D. Chronic Conditions and Comorbid Psychological Disorders. Seattle, WA: Millman 2008.

Kathol R, Sargent S, Melek S, Sacks L, Patel K. Non-traditional Mental Health and Substance use Disorder Services as a Core Part of Health in CINs and ACOs. In: Yale K, Raskauskas T, Bohn J, Konschak C, eds. Clinical Integration -- Population Health and Accountable Care. 3 ed. Virginia Beach, VA: Convergent Publishing, LLC, 4445 Corporation Lane, Ste 227; 2015.