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Post by Former NIMH Director Thomas Insel: We Are the Government

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We often hear that the federal government is too big, too wasteful, or simply “the problem rather than the solution.” A recent Gallup poll indicates that fear of government may be at a near-record high, with 64 percent of Americans polled citing “big government” as the “biggest threat to the country.” As an extension of this lack of public trust, federal employees are often portrayed as nameless, faceless bureaucrats who hide behind regulations and red tape.

As the head of a government institute, I find this caricature of public service both painful and surreal because it has no overlap with my daily experience. NIMH is a federal agency within the Department of Health and Human Services, entirely supported by taxpayer dollars. Roughly 95 percent of NIMH funding is invested in science at universities, research institutions, or the intramural research program, here in Bethesda. The remaining 5 percent pays for the careful stewardship of this investment.

But who are the stewards, the “bureaucrats” hiding behind the curtain of the federal government? Some NIMH employees are scientists from universities who have chosen to leave academic positions because they want to have a broader impact on public health. Some are clinicians who feel that the field needs better science for their patients. Others are world-renowned researchers, editors of major scientific journals, and some of the major innovators in the technologies of neuroscience. Our clinical experts are the same people who volunteered to leave their homes and families to assist in the Gulf States after Hurricane Katrina or in the war zone of Afghanistan. These people are all public servants.

When I interview candidates for jobs at NIMH, I talk about the triad of factors for choosing a position: salary, life style, and impact. For most of us, NIMH offers less salary than we could make elsewhere. While life style is an individual matter, judging from the volume of work and speed of the workflow, evidenced by work e-mails I receive around the clock, no one I know works only 40 hours per week! We come here for the mission—and it is often personal. There is the son with ADHD, the daughter with anorexia, the sister with schizophrenia, the nephew with autism. People come here to fight for those who can’t fight for themselves. As one colleague said to me recently, “I lost my only sibling to a heroin overdose and can't sit in a lecture about substance use without my heart ending up in my throat... We are all walking on the same path...on the same difficult journey.”

The term “public servant” is completely accurate. My colleagues at NIMH are committed to the public good and, like dutiful servants, remain almost entirely unrecognized for what they accomplish. The next time you hear the word “government,” rather than conjuring images of grand, marble buildings, try to think of the real federal workers who are treating patients, closing in on the next great research discovery, and fighting for better health and a better future for us all.