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As COVID-19 crisis raises risk of suicide and mental illness, Americans deserve more help

New bipartisan legislation from Fischer, Smith would boost access to mental health resources

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, people are struggling not just with job insecurity and unemployment, but also with mental illnesses, and we must do more to connect them with resources that can help, Fischer and Smith write.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, people are struggling not just with job insecurity and unemployment, but also with mental illnesses, and we must do more to connect them with resources that can help, Fischer and Smith write. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The COVID-19 outbreak has not only put the physical health of Americans at risk, it has significantly impacted people’s mental health as well. Job insecurity and unemployment, social isolation, and the difficulty of caring for sick relatives and children have combined to create the perfect storm of distress for countless families.

In fact, the National Alliance on Mental Illness HelpLine reports that it has seen a 65 percent increase in emails and calls since the pandemic began. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association warned of the high potential for an increase in suicides for years to come. 

Mental health challenges are particularly pronounced in rural parts of the country. Rural areas often struggle with easy access to specialty medical providers like mental health professionals. In 2016, the University of Nebraska Medical Center reported that 1 in 5 Nebraskans had reported experiencing mental illness over the previous year. Tragically, in 2018, suicide was the second leading cause of death in the state for Nebraskans aged 15 to 34 years.

Similarly, the Minnesota Department of Human Services reports that 1 in 5 Minnesotans face mental illness each year. In 2015, approximately 9 percent of Minnesotan adults experienced frequent mental distress. This was more pronounced among African Americans (nearly 11 percent). In addition, the suicide rate in Minnesota has steadily increased from approximately 9 per 100,000 Minnesotans in 2000 to 13 per 100,000 in 2015, an unfortunate trend.

The majority of federal funding for mental health falls under discretionary grants and Medicaid block grants. Although the lion’s share of grants come from the Department of Health and Human Services, many grants are spread across several federal agencies, and often can be very difficult for applicants and recipients to navigate. We need to ensure that our federal resources are reaching the people and organizations in need.

That’s why we have introduced the ATTAIN Mental Health Act. This bipartisan legislation would create an interactive, web-based dashboard to allow potential applicants to review eligibility and status information for federal grant funding related to mental health programs. The legislation would task HHS with developing this online tool in a collaborative interagency effort with a wide range of stakeholder feedback.

This dashboard would make the process of identifying and applying for mental health grants as transparent as possible. Schools, municipal governments, local law enforcement agencies, housing services and community-based organizations would all benefit from this greater awareness.

The online dashboard would be established in consultation with other relevant agencies, such as the Education and Justice departments, to ensure all federal grants related to mental health treatment, support or assistance can be found in a central place. The legislation would also establish a method through HHS to gather the information on federal funding made available through block grants. States would be able to voluntarily share information regarding how they may have renamed or distributed their federal funds for mental health purposes, to make it easier for potential applicants to track current grant opportunities in their area.

For these reasons, our legislation has been endorsed by organizations that assist with crucial mental health support, including the American Psychiatric Association, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the National Association of Social Workers. 

At a time of elevated risk of suicides and mental illnesses, we must do more to connect those struggling with resources that can help. It must be addressed head-on. We are committed to working with our colleagues to advance this legislation and provide Nebraskans, Minnesotans and all Americans with relief as they tackle the unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety that have resulted from this pandemic.

Sen. Deb Fischer is a Republican representing the state of Nebraska.

Sen. Tina Smith is a Democrat representing the state of Minnesota.

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