There is little argument that the mental health of the public in our country is in crisis. Rates of depression, anxiety and addiction, particularly among young people, are on the rise. Rates of suicide, hate crimes and rampage killings are also mounting, as is the demand for mental health services. A survey published in January by the California Health Care Foundation and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than half of those surveyed thought their communities lacked adequate mental health care providers and that most people with mental health conditions are unable to get needed services.
Statistics like these indicate that there is a gap in state and federal oversight of public mental health. At present, the federal office of the surgeon general oversees public health generally but may not be adequate to address the mounting problems in the mental health sector in particular. Given this context, and as a practicing psychologist for over 30 years, I propose that U.S. lawmakers promote needed reforms in the way public mental health is both engaged and overseen.
Specifically, I call upon Congress to enact a new law that mandates the position of a “psychologist general” to serve alongside and on a par with the surgeon general of the United States. This psychologist general would then be tasked with monitoring, advising and providing direct oversight to public mental health services akin to the way the surgeon general oversees the public health sector as a whole.
The difference would be that the psychologist general would be a trained and licensed mental health professional specializing in alleviation of behavioral and emotional distress whereas the surgeon general, who certainly concerns him or herself with such distress, has neither the time nor resources to make that distress the number one priority of his or her office. A psychologist general, on the other hand, would be in a position to champion the psychological well-being of our nation and play a key part in enhancing and expanding the accessibility of mental health services for all.
Furthermore, the placement of a psychologist general at the forefront of mental health research and delivery would send a strong message to our citizenry that psychological well-being is prized on a par with physical health. It is a message that is in keeping with the “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” phrase in our Declaration of Independence, but it is also, and more importantly, a message that resonates with contemporary needs. Moreover, there is every indication that by addressing these needs our nation will save on medical costs as well.
Finally, the process of selecting a psychologist general would not need to differ much from that of the present selection process for the surgeon general. Specifically, just as in the case of the surgeon general, the psychologist general could be selected by the sitting president of the U.S. with the advice and consent of Congress. His or her pool of candidates could draw on the same corps of the U.S. Public Health Service to which the president currently turns for the selection of the nation’s top physician.
Alternatively, it could make sense for Congress to authorize selections outside of this corps, as there are many qualified psychologists who may not officially be part of the corps but who hold equivalent and perhaps in some cases superior credentials in the promotion of public mental health. In either case, the time is ripe for a psychologist general. It is both economically warranted and morally imperative.