President Carter's Commission on Mental Health, led by Rosalynn Carter who is technically its "honorary chairperson," and also its working chief, reported yesterday that as many as 32 million Americans need mental health services at any moment.
In a first report to the President, the commission urged many new federal and local actions but recommended little increase in federal funds to help these "handicapped" millions whose numbers, it said, are larger than ever believed - one person in seven.
In what Mrs. Carter called "our most important recommendation," the commission also urged that Americans bring their mental and emotional problems fully "out of the closet" to end the "stigma" that still stands in the way of help for large numbers.
The commission cited a new National Institute of Mental Health study estimating that "between 20 and 32 million Americans need some kind of mental health care at any one time."
In recent years, the most common estimate has been that 10 per cent of the population usually needs some such care. The new evidence indicates that this figure may be "closer to 15 per cent," the commission said. Thirty-two million disturbed would be 14.8 per cent of the current population of 216 million.
All of the 20 million to 32 million are not seriously disturbed, said Dr. Thomas E. Bryant, the commission chairman. They include persons with family, alcohol and drug problems, delinquent children and thousands of persons in hospitals with physical illnesses that are actually caused or aggravated by emotional problems.
The number does not include the six million mentally retarded. But it does include millions who are both deprived and disturbed by joblessness and, in the case of many minorities, by persistant discrimination and resulant hoplessness.
"When you look around you, it includes everybody." Mrs. Carter told a news conference. At some time "everyone" needs some help, she said.
As evidence of the continuing stigma attached to mental ills, she cited the 450 Alexandria, Va., residents who last week petitioned against a halfway house to help ex-patients adjust to community life.
"These people are not crazy," she said of those who occupy such half-way houses. "They're hurting and they need support while they work out their problems."
Among recommendations, the commission urged few to add federal dollars. But it did urge the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to maintain professional training programs which HEW officials say are slated to be phased out beginning with the fiscal 1979 budget now being prepared.
It also urged HEW to add from 20 to 35 per cent to the $167 million research budgets of three national institutes - those for mental health, alcohol abuse and drug abuse.
Asked yesterday whether HEW Secretary Joseph A. Califano Jr. is aware of this set of recommendations, Mrs. Carter replied, "He will be aware of it very soon."
Among other recommendations, the commission urged:
That the Department of Housing and Urban Development encourage states and cities to allocate federal funds to more group care homes and give rental assistance funds to persons living in them.
That HEW continue supporting community mental health centers, while still seeking other means to care for the disturbed in their own communities.
That HEW designate many state and county mental hospitals as "health manpower shortage areas," making them eligible for federal National Health Service Corps personnel.
That HEW seek ways to provide more Medicare and Medicaid services to the mentally ill, pending some form of mental care in a new system of national health insurance.