On Wednesday March 23rd, 2022, Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-WA) led the Senate HELP Committee’s hearing: “Strengthening Federal Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder Programs: Opportunities, Challenges, and Emerging Issues.” The Committee members and witnesses discussed issues necessitating bipartisan legislation addressing the increasing severity of the mental health and substance use disorders prevailing across the country. These issues have only worsened since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic with almost 130 million Americans living in areas with less than 1 mental health provider per 1000 people. Further, nationwide, not even 1/10 of people who need treatment for substance use disorders are able to receive it, and this statistic is even more pronounced for people of color and other minorities. The Chair and Ranking Member expressed their desire to have pulled together a bipartisan behavioral health package by this summer.

Both sides of the aisle, as well as the witnesses, seemed to be in consensus as to these issues regarding both the mental health and substance abuse concerns demanding action. Ranking Member Burr (R-NC) cited the uptick in emergency room visits in young people in 2020 alone which rose by 20%, and the over 100,000 lives lost to drug overdoses in the past year. Calls were made by both Murray and witnesses to address child mental health through increased suicide screening, tackling barriers to mental health access, help bolstering schools’ ability to meet needs, and help drawing children out of the isolation imposed by the pandemic. SAMHSA Commissioner Dr. Miriam Delphin-Rittmon discussed the new ‘988’ mental health crisis number and SAMHSA’s new HOPE framework rolling out in schools. CWLA and children and behavioral health advocates support SAMHSA reauthorization including improved access to, and expanded availability of, programs for children and youth, and urge the committee to keep children and families at the forefront of reforms.

Senator Murray addressed the need for the federal government to provide additional screening and support for people needing mental health and addiction treatment as well as support for mental health workers both on the front lines and behind the scenes. Witness Carole Johnson, Administrator of HRSA outlined several programs that are up for reauthorization, including screening and treatment for maternal depression which includes training and education for providers. Other programs include a pediatric mental health access program which would build capacity to respond to children’s immediate mental healthcare needs, and a workforce program reaching even into rural communities, which helps to combat the workforce crisis, offer scholarships, loan repayments, and training. There is great demand for these programs, but funding limits the number of women and children served; greater funding is necessary to broaden the reach of these important programs.