On Tuesday, February 1, 2022, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions held a hearing entitled “Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders: Responding to the Growing Crisis.” 


Chairwoman Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) highlighted that millions of people across the country face mental health disorders, while 130 million Americans live in areas with less than 1 mental health worker per 1000 people. Since the pandemic, the mental health crisis has worsened, with an increase in children’s visits to hospitals, thoughts of suicide, or suicide attempts. Senator Murray stressed the importance of bipartisan collaboration to develop a comprehensive mental health package to expand mental health services and respond to drug overdoses.  


Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AL), who was standing in for ranking member Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), reiterated the importance of bipartisanship in addressing the crisis. Senator Murkowski also announced that she was working on a new bill, the Guarding Our Mental Health Act, that is meant to prevent Coast Guard members who seek help for their mental health from being automatically processed for discharge and is meant to help eliminate the stigma around mental health.  


Mitch Prinstein (PhD, ABPP), Chief Science Officer of the American Psychological Association (APA), emphasized the need for a diverse and robust mental health workforce in the face of worker shortages. He suggested that doctoral interns in psychology be reimbursed under Medicare as medical residents are to mobilize a greater number of healthcare workers.  

When asked about the impact of pandemic restrictions on children’s health by Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), Dr. Prinstein responded by saying that major stressors caused by the pandemic, such as the death of family members, disruption in roles and routines, political disagreements, and social isolation due to social media, have had a negative effect on children’s mental health. Dr. Prinstein recommended implementing programs to fund mental health services to allow schools to use their expertise on what the community needs and identify children who may be at risk. He suggested promoting partnerships between psychologists and schools to aid school staff and provide mental health services to students.  


Michelle P. Durham (MD, MPH, FAPA, DFAACAP), Vice Chair of Education in the Department of Psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine, claimed that care silos contribute to inequities in the workforce, forcing patients to go to many different providers for the care they need. Dr. Durham argued that training healthcare providers in both mental and physical health would provide patients with greater ease of access to the care they need.  


Dr. Durham also touched on the barriers prior authorization can impose on those seeking treatment. Prior authorization causes delays in care for mental health patients that are not experienced in patients with physical ailments. Dr. Durham claimed that parity is needed for both physical and mental health. Without it, patients are made to wait longer for care, exasperating the current lack of hospital beds further and leading to burn-out in healthcare workers.  


Sara Goldsby (MSW, MPH), director of the South Carolina Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services, spoke in favor of the federal government making substance use disorders as a focus, and advocated for continued support of the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment (SAPT) block grant. Goldsby also emphasized the importance of educating healthcare workers on substance use disorders, highlighting how such disorders are not a moral failing and those suffering from such disorders should not be further stigmatized but assisted.  


 Jenifer D. Lockman (PhD), CEO of Centerstone Research Institute, also argued that substance use disorders should become a main focus for Congress. Regarding the implementation of the 988 suicide hotline, Dr. Lockman recommended that Congress ensure that providers are trained to offer best-practice interventions, inclusive language is utilized, and that the entire crisis continuum continues to be expanded.  


Claire Rhyneer, a mental health youth advocate from Alaska, provided a personal testimony on her struggles with mental health. Rhyneer recommended developing a curriculum that teaches students about mental health and providing access to youth clubs where students can share their stories to further destigmatize mental health and open conversations about the topic. 

The key themes during the questioning centered around parity, addressing prior authorization, school-based supports, mental healthcare worker shortages, and destigmatizing mental and substance use disorders. 

In her closing remarks, Chairwoman Murray emphasized the need to discuss suicide openly and engage dialogue with the youth and communities to further destigmatize it. The Committee will continue to focus on the topic including next week’s hearing on the workforce.