Pending Legislation Seeks to Confront Mental Health Crisis from COVID-19

July 1, 2020 by Tom Ramstack

WASHINGTON – A psychologist and psychiatrist on Tuesday suggested Congress provide stronger federal intervention to prevent a mental health crisis during the coronavirus pandemic.

They said suicides and substance abuse are on the upswing as Americans struggle with quarantines, social distancing and deaths of relatives.

“We need to start providing services to people before they’re in crisis,” Arthur C. Evans, Jr., chief executive officer of the American Psychological Association, told the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

The Disaster Distress Helpline, supported by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, recently reported an 891% increase in call volume in March 2020 compared with one year earlier.

“Our health as a nation, both physical and mental, will be tested in the days ahead,” Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Calif., said during the congressional hearing.

Currently there are 22 bills pending in Congress to cope with mental health challenges.

Support for all or some of them differs widely among individual Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

Some of the bills would expand “telehealth,” or consulting with doctors by telephone and Internet. Others would allow a broader range of mental health counseling services to be paid through Medicare.

Yet another would fund teams to do mental health screening and provide counseling for students at their schools.

Psychological research mentioned during the congressional hearing said school-age teenagers and young adults are in the highest risk group for suicide and substance abuse.

A key witness was Jeffrey L. Geller, president of the American Psychiatric Association, who cautioned that all of the proposed solutions will cost the government more money.

“While it’s going to cost more upfront,” Geller said, there will be “downstream savings.”

Congress allocated $425 million to behavioral health this year in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act. The law is designed to address the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

An investment in mental health would result in fewer people going to emergency rooms, less substance abuse by depressed persons and a reduction in suicides, Geller said.

“In the COVID-19 pandemic era, Americans are now grappling with one of the worst unemployment rates in recent history, added to social isolation in order to comply with physical distancing recommendations and topped off with the unfolding communal unrest regarding systemic racism and police brutality,” Geller said in his testimony. “Each of these situations alone would generally increase the feelings of anxiety, depression and other mental health and [emotional distress] for many Americans. When combined, these factors produce alarming statistics.”

He quoted a Mental Health America survey showing that in February about 10% of the over 211,000 people who answered the online questions indicated they had contemplated suicide or harming themselves.

“These symptoms of increased anxiety, depression and self-harm are attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Geller said.

Former congressman Patrick Kennedy, founder of the Kennedy Forum, a behavioral health advocacy group, told the committee the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated how the federal government has underfunded mental health.

Kennedy admitted that he has struggled with his own mental health, including a substance abuse problem that started when he was young.

He said mental health programs funded through Medicaid are likely to suffer as their tax revenue declines during the current economic downturn. States are expected to endure billions of dollars in cuts to Medicaid next year.

“It all revolves around the money,” Kennedy said about addressing a potential mental health crisis.

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