A recent wave of mass shootings, including an attack on a primary school in Texas that killed 19 young children and two teachers, has thrown the issue of mental health back into the national spotlight.
“There is a serious crisis in the mental health of young people in this country.” President Joe Biden said in a prime-time address last week on gun violence, calling for a ban on assault weapons and other reforms as lawmakers try to work out a compromise. “We need to do something about it.”
What is needed, he said, are more school counselors and nurses, additional mental health services for students and teachers and more resources to protect children from the harms of social media.
“It matters,” Biden said. “I just told you what I’m going to do. The question now is, what will Congress do?
A group of bipartisan senators, led by Democrat Chris Murphy and Republican John Cornin, is considering a gun reform package that will include funding for mental health. Negotiations continue, with Murphy saying he is “more confident than ever” that a compromise can be reached, but Democrats need 10 Republican senators to sign gun laws to overcome the House’s 60 votes.
As these arms talks remain in the air, several congressional committees have been laying the groundwork for two-party packages to improve mental health services and combat substance abuse for months after the coronavirus pandemic highlighted the need for greater access to care.
The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) and the Senate Finance Committee set goals in February to introduce comprehensive legislation this summer, although the two panels have not yet released a more detailed timetable.
The Senate Finance Committee released its first set of draft health policy policies, most recently on May 26, and said additional draft policies could be released in the coming weeks.
Also in May, the House of Representatives’ Energy and Trade Committee unveiled a package that will re-authorize more than 30 programs on mental health and substance abuse that are due to expire this fall. The law, entitled The Hope for Restoring Hope for Mental Health and Well-Being Act of 2022, was introduced in the House of Representatives, but has not yet been put to a full vote.
Chuck Ingolia, president and chief executive of the National Welfare Council, said in his 20 years of advocacy that he had never seen Congress spend “so much time, energy and attention” on mental health issues.
“I feel confident that the bill will be passed this year,” Ingolia told ABC News. “And then the second question that really matters is how comprehensive or big is it?”
Sarah Corcoran, vice president of government relations at Guide Consulting Services, said the package “needs to be quite substantial to really transform the system from where we are to what it needs to be to meet this current level.” in need. “
At the end of last year, several organizations representing children’s health professionals declared a national state of emergency for the mental health of young people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also reported that visits to emergency departments for suicide attempts among teenage girls increased by more than 50 percent at the start of the pandemic. U.S. Chief Surgeon Vivek Marty told the Senate Finance Committee in a hearing earlier this year that the pandemic had a “devastating” impact on the mental health of young people in America.
Many of the proposals being discussed by Senate committees and the House of Representatives cover what lawmakers have focused on since the Uwalde shooting: the mental health of young people and school services.
In particular, Republicans support measures such as funding for mental health and increased security in schools, as talks on possible arms control reforms continue on Capitol Hill, although advocates say rhetoric blaming shooting only on mental illness is harmful and inaccurate.
Democrat Sen. Patti Murray, chair of the HELP committee, said she wanted the package to help “schools and communities meet the mental health needs of children”.
Other priorities outlined by Murray during a March hearing include screening and preventing suicide, 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 strengthening mental health care for children and young people, expanding telehealth services and strengthening the behavioral health workforce. Republicans and Democrats have joined forces to explore each area.
The draft policy, released last week, will remove Medicare’s personal requirement for those seeking telephone or virtual mental health treatment and encourage countries to use their Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to better serve behavioral health needs in schools through telehealth – a step that could provide relief for those living in deserts for mental health. An ABC analysis found that 75% of rural counties across the country have no mental health providers or less than 50 providers per 100,000 people.
President Ron Widen, D-Ore., Tweeted days after the Uwalde shooting that “the time has passed for a holistic approach to tackling the mental health crisis.”