Governor’s ‘Mental Health Czar’ Seeks New Blueprint For Care In California

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In a career full of twists, turns and high-powered assignments, Thomas Insel may now be embarking on one of his most daunting tasks yet — helping California find its way out of a worrisome mental health care crisis.

This year, he assumed a new role to help Gov. Gavin Newsom revamp mental health care in the state. Newsom called Insel his “mental health czar,” though his position is unpaid and Insel says it grants him “no authority.” Even so, he is zigzagging across California this summer, visiting mental health facilities to try to understand what works and what doesn’t.

Insel’s meandering career path began early. A precocious student, he enrolled in a joint B.A.-M.D. program at Boston University at age 15 and then took a one-year hiatus to volunteer in clinics across Asia. He returned to finish his medical degree and later completed a three-year psychiatry residency at the University of California-San Francisco.

As a young scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health in the 1980s, Insel researched the effects of antidepressants, then shifted gears to study the neurobiology of emotional attachment in the prairie vole, a rodent known for monogamous behavior.

His groundbreaking research revealed that the vole’s devotion to a single mate was attributable to higher levels of a protein in its brain. That work — along with earlier research on anxiety in monkeys — led to a job running the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta starting in 1994. He returned to NIMH in 2002 as its director and headed the institute, the world’s largest funder of mental health research, for the next 13 years.

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This KHN story first published on California Healthline, a service of the California Health Care Foundation.

California Mental Health Substance Abuse