On Thursday, March 11, 2021, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies held a hearing to discuss COVID-19 and the mental health and substance use crisis.
Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) opened with remarks about the pandemic and how it has increased anxiety and depression, worsened mental health, and led to an increase in substance use for many Americans. An example of this can be seen through a story told by Chairwoman DeLauro, where an 11-year-old girl went to the Emergency Room for something unrelated to mental health, but due to the recent implementation of suicide screenings, was asked if she had thought about harming herself, to which the 11-year old replied that she had for a while, but wasn’t sure who to speak to about this. Mental health has already been a concern in this country, but the challenges presented by the pandemic, including school closings, isolation, economic anxiety, challenges obtaining childcare, have highlighted mental health challenges. This is just an example of how the pandemic has taken a toll on everyone’s mental health, especially our children and adolescents.
Chairwoman DeLauro shared many statistics on how mental health has become a more prevalent challenge for Americans in the past year, including that the number of adults who reported symptoms of anxiety and depression went from 1 in 10 in 2019 to 4 in 10 in 2020. Over 50% of people say that the pandemic has negatively impacted their mental health, taking an even larger toll on the most vulnerable populations. Suicidal thinking among young patients is up 25% in 2020. These are just examples of the many battles Americans are facing as we live through the pandemic.
Witness Arthur Evans Jr., the CEO and Executive Vice President of the American Psychological Association shared that our nation is experiencing psychological trauma and distress, which will continue for months and years. If we are to effectively and equitably target these mental health challenges, we must approach it based on population health which would mean adding prevention and early intervention strategies at the community level.
Witness Lisa Amaya-Jackson, who is the Co-Director of UCLA-Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, made recommendations to ensure children and families have resources to meet their mental health needs, increase access to evidence-based, trauma-informed services for children and caregivers, support schools in implementing trauma-informed care, and support research on the impact of traumatic stress from the pandemic.
Witness Verna Foust, the CEO of Red Rock Behavioral Health Sciences, noted that providing federal block grants to states is critical to providing services to the vulnerable. She supports the implementation of Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics (CCBHCs) and noted that they had been proven to improve access to care, provide quality treatment, have better staff training, and give enhanced care for veterans.
Witness Mark Stringer, the Missouri Department of Mental Health Director, spoke about his experience in seeing the pandemic cause substance use to skyrocket to troubling rates. He recommended a transition over time from opioid-specific grants to funds that would have the flexibility to treat all substances of concern, not just opioid-specific ones.
Committee members areas of concerns addressed during the hearing from both sides included:
- Concerns for maternal mental health which is worsening as a result of the pandemic
- Concerns on youth-on-youth violence due to isolation
- Concerns about how structural racism impacts physical health, specifically early death
- Concerns on the collision of racism in mental health and the rising overdose deaths
- Concerns about access to mental health services for African Americans and fear of police responding to African Americans experiencing a mental health crisis
- Concerns about the lag of reopening schools and impact on children’s mental health, lack of interaction with peers, art, sports, etc.
- Concerns of child anxiety and depression increasing
- Concerns of increased domestic violence
- Concerns for the mental health of children in the foster care system and the lack of trauma-informed care
To conclude, Chairwoman DeLauro stated we have research showing that trouble with mental health can go beyond the duration of the event (ex: 9/11, Hurricane Katrina); therefore, we need to be ready to fight the impacts of the pandemic long after everyone has been vaccinated. The pandemic has exposed issues in our current systems and exacerbated disparities that already existed. We need to put funding into the right places and listen to the experts.