Improving mental health care through systemic harmonization

Angelo McClain, Ph.D., LICSWOctober is National Depression Awareness Month. On Oct. 10, organizations and communities across the country will observe “National Depression Screening Day” to educate people about the various signs and symptoms of depression and about the availability of free anonymous behavioral health screenings.

In June, President Obama hosted the White House Summit on Mental Health, which was a call for action to improve mental health care nationwide. The summit convened individuals who have personally experienced mental illness, health care experts, advocates, civic leaders, foundation representatives, and others to identify innovative ways to reduce negative attitudes and improve access to treatment.

The summit’s ultimate aim is to help Americans live healthy and productive lives by increasing access to affordable, effective behavioral health care services.

Many of our discussions at the summit centered on the intersection of the Affordable Care Act and mental health. The Affordable Care Act builds on the Mental Health Parity and Addictions Equity Act to expand mental health and substance use disorder benefits and federal parity protections to 60 million Americans.

Since the summit, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has increased the availability of tools health care providers need to screen for mental health problems and encouraged them to lead awareness efforts in their communities. Many of the community awareness efforts are highlighted at

The summit also launched new public awareness efforts on television, radio, social media and beyond, focused on teaching students about mental health and helping adults who work with young people to recognize early warning signs and refer youth for treatment MentalHealthGov; email to

The president’s budget proposal includes a strong focus on mental health by investing in helping teachers and other adults recognize the signs of mental illness in students and referring them to help if needed; supporting innovative state-based programs to improve mental health outcomes for young people ages 16 to 25; and helping to train 5,000 additional mental health professionals with an emphasis on serving students and young adults.

Currently, less than 40 percent of people with mental health illnesses receive treatment. Even though three-quarters of mental illnesses emerge early in life, only half of children with mental health problems get treatment.

Part of the challenge we still face involves the fragmentation of our service delivery system. The White House elevated the conversation around mental health and now it is up to organizations like NASW; advocates, including social workers; and clients that we help each day to work together to promote coordinated care, reduce stigma and enhance well-being.

About two years ago, my wife asked if I wanted to go to a violin concert — Bowfire. After several minutes of discussion, I agreed to go. As we entered the concert hall, I wondered if a concert with only violins could actually be any good. I was simply amazed at how the 13 violinists from 13 different countries could make such harmonic music.

In the quiet of the audience, I thought, “This is the goal we seek in mental health care when we talk about collaboration, partnership and continuity of care—we are ultimately seeking harmonization!”

Systemic harmonization is needed to address the mental health challenges and opportunities our country faces. We all know the statistics: 1 in 5 American adults experience a mental health issue; 1 in 10 youth experience major depression; 1 in 20 Americans live with a serious mental illness; suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.

Systemic harmonization assumes the individual (and their family), the caseworker, the therapist, the prescriber, peer supports, and community services staff are in joint agreement and accord — or balance — to achieve the best possible outcomes.

This balance is also needed between advocates, funders, policymakers, educators, researchers and administrators to address mental health needs at the community level. Social workers, with our person-in-environment knowledge and skills, possess the competencies and perspectives needed to ensure harmony within interdisciplinary mental health care teams and within multi-entity community coalitions.

At the June summit, participants discussed redefining strength to include asking for help and seeking care, and we pledged to help reduce and ultimately eliminate the stigma that exists around seeking mental health care. There was broad consensus that the challenge requires a new level of cooperation, collaboration and partnership — systemic harmonization.

To provide feedback to NASW CEO Angelo McClain, please email