Our debt to the health care workers, grocery store clerks, and other men and women who are physically on the front lines of our nation’s fight to combat the COVID-19 virus cannot be overstated. But another battle puts all of us on the front lines: the mental health crisis in America. As the Washington Post reported this week, our nation had a mental health crisis before the coronavirus, but recent statistics and anecdotal evidence show that it’s going to get even worse.
The Disaster Distress Helpline, a federal crisis hotline that provides counseling for people facing emotional distress during times of natural and human-caused disasters, has seen an 891 percent increase in calls compared to this time last year. Dr. Joshua Gordon, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), told me that half of all Americans are experiencing moderate to strong anxiety, along the lines of the numbers we saw during Hurricane Katrina.
All the evidence suggests this will worsen. The jobless rate and our deteriorating economy are negatively affecting our mental health. For every one point increase in unemployment, the suicide rate trends up by 1.6 percent. This month we learned the unemployment rate rose 10.3 percentage points to 14.7 percent.
We are going to lose people if we don’t act now.
Stopping COVID-19 and rebuilding our economy are critical to our mental health crisis. But we also must tackle the systemic problems within our mental health system.
First, we need to strengthen our nation’s mental health parity laws. It is the law of the land for insurance companies to treat physical and behavioral health the same. The problem is, insurance companies aren’t complying. The federal government needs new tools to enforce the law, and there are multiple bipartisan efforts happening now in Congress to provide them. Rep. Joe KennedyJoseph (Joe) Patrick KennedyThe Hill’s Campaign Report: Flynn ‘unmasking’ enters 2020 debate Candidates shift to volunteering as pandemic halts campaigning Kennedy leads Markey ahead of Massachusetts Senate primary: polls MORE III (D-Mass.) introduced a bill that would hold insurers accountable for covering mental illness and substance use disorders, and Sen. Bill CassidyWilliam (Bill) Morgan CassidyA quiet, overlooked revolution in congressional power Bipartisan Senate group offers new help to state, local governments Red-state cities get cool reception from GOP on relief aid MORE (R-La.) introduced legislation that would ensure mental health coverage cannot be more restrictive than any other coverage. Both get at the core of the issue: the federal government needs stronger enforcement tools to ensure that insurance companies follow the law and treat mental health just like our physical health.
Second, we need parity in federal funding for mental health. Our country has some of the best and brightest doctors and mental health professionals in the world, but they need more resources in order to deliver the services required to adequately address the mental health needs in the country. With many addiction and mental health treatment providers on the verge of shutting down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress should start by providing at least $38.5 billion in emergency funding for behavioral health organizations. We should also increase funding for substance use disorder prevention, crisis services, suicide prevention, and evidence-based care related to trauma.
Over the long-term, we need to dramatically expand our investment in the National Institutes of Health (NIH), with a significant portion of this investment dedicated to the NIMH to investigate both the immediate mental health crisis and follow-on impacts that have the potential to compromise our well-being as a society if left unaddressed. And, we need to provide the incentives to create a new generation of mental health and addiction treatment providers to ensure every American has access to the care they need.
Third, while our mental health crisis impacts all Americans, our first responders and frontline workers are among the hardest hit. Last year, I held a roundtable to discuss the mental health challenges faced by first responders in Maryland following the suicide of a Montgomery County police officer. During the roundtable, we spoke about the barriers to accessing mental health services and what we can do to help. We discovered two solutions that would encourage first responders to seek the support they need: confidentiality and peer support counseling.
Some law enforcement officers and other first responders don’t access mental treatment for fear of losing their job. We can fix this by passing a bill I recently introduced, the Confidentiality Opportunities for Peer Support (COPS) Counseling Act. This bill would protect the privacy of first responders who seek mental health treatment and expand the availability of peer support counselors, who are uniquely qualified to speak to the challenges first responders face on the job. We can find other solutions by talking to every sector of our society.
Lastly, tackling the stigma associated with mental illness requires an effort larger than legislation — especially during the COVID-19 outbreak. We need to talk about mental health more with our loved ones, make human connections, and work to help defeat the feeling of isolation from the COVID-19 pandemic. We need to do things like pitching in to help the elderly and other high-risk groups with grocery shopping, supporting a hospital worker who might not be able to see their family because of the pandemic, or doing simple things like connecting with family and friends through calls and video chats.
We need to talk about mental health challenges more. It’s a problem that touches all of us and there is no reason it should be left out of the conversation during this pandemic. These challenges impact all of us, and we must all join together on the frontlines to tackle this crisis.
Trone represents Maryland’s 6th District.