(WASHINGTON) — A recent spate of mass shootings, including an attack at a Texas elementary school that killed 19 young children and two teachers, has thrust the issue of mental health back into the national spotlight.
“There’s a serious youth mental health crisis in this country,” President Joe Biden said last week in a prime-time address on gun violence, in which he called for a ban on assault weapons and other reforms as lawmakers try to iron out a compromise. “We have to do something about it.”
What’s needed, he said, are more school counselors and nurses, additional mental health services for students and teachers and more resources to help keep kids safe from the harms of social media.
“It matters,” Biden said. “I just told you what I’d do. The question now is what will the Congress do?”
A group of bipartisan senators, led by Democrat Chris Murphy and Republican John Cornyn, is considering a gun reform package that would include funding for mental health. Negotiations are ongoing, with Murphy saying he’s “more confident than ever” a compromise can be met, but Democrats need 10 Republican senators to sign off on any gun legislation to overcome the chamber’s 60-vote filibuster.
While those gun talks remain up in the air, several congressional committees have been laying the groundwork for months on bipartisan packages to improve mental health services and combat substance abuse after the coronavirus pandemic highlighted the need for increased access to care.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee and the Senate Finance Committee back in February set goals to introduce comprehensive legislation this summer, though the two panels have yet to release a more detailed timeline.
The Senate Finance Committee released its first set of draft policies related to telehealth services last on May 26, and said additional draft policies may be released in the coming weeks.
Also in May, the House Energy and Commerce Committee advanced a package that would reauthorize more than 30 programs on mental health and substance abuse set to expire this fall. The legislation, titled Restoring Hope for Mental Health and Well-Being Act of 2022, was introduced in the House but has yet to be taken up for a full floor vote.
Chuck Ingoglia, the president and CEO of the National Council for Wellbeing, said in his 20 years of advocacy he’s never seen Congress spend “this much time, energy and attention” on issues relating to mental health.
“I feel confident that a bill will pass this year,” Ingoglia told ABC News. “And then the second question, which is really important, is how comprehensive or large is it?”
Sarah Corcoran, vice president of government relations at Guide Consulting Services, said a package would “need to be fairly substantial to really transform the system from where we are to what it needs to be to meet that current level of need.”
Late last year, several organizations representing children’s health professionals declared a national emergency for youth mental health. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also reported that emergency room visits for suicide attempts among teen girls were up more than 50% at the beginning of the pandemic. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy told the Senate Finance Committee in a hearing earlier this year that the pandemic has had a “devastating” impact on the mental health of America’s young people.
Many of the proposals being discussed by the Senate and House panels cover what lawmakers have zeroed in on in the aftermath of the Uvalde shooting: youth mental health and school services.
Republicans in particular have favored measures like mental health funding and increased school security as talks on possible gun control reforms continue on Capitol Hill, though advocates say the rhetoric blaming the shootings solely on mental illness are harmful and inaccurate.
Democratic Senator Patty Murray, chairwoman of the HELP committee, said she wants the package to help “schools and communities meet kids’ mental health needs.”
Other priorities outlined by Murray during a March hearing include suicide screening and prevention, reducing drug overdose deaths and addressing the mental health needs of new mothers.
The Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, identified five areas of need for potential legislative action including bolstering mental health care for children and young people, expanding telehealth services and strengthening the behavioral health workforce. Republican and Democratic members of the panel have teamed up to address each area.
The draft policies released last week would remove Medicare’s in-person requirement for those seeking telephone or virtual health mental health treatment and incentivize states to use their Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to better serve behavioral health needs in schools through telehealth — a step that could provide relief for those living in mental health deserts. An ABC analysis found 75% of rural counties across the country have no mental health providers, or fewer than 50 providers per 100,000 people.
Chairman Ron Wyden, D-Ore., tweeted days after the Uvalde shooting that it’s “past time for a comprehensive approach to addressing the mental health crisis.”
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