We are failing with COVID, let’s not fail on mental health

The Hill



We are failing with COVID, let's not fail on mental health  

© ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

If there ever was a time for our nation to embrace true reform for mental health and addiction, now is that time. But like all significant efforts for change, it takes courage, leadership, and vision. 

According to Kaiser Family Foundation, mental health issues have increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, with 36.5 percent of adults in the U.S. reporting symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, up 25 percent from the same time last year (11 percent ). And how we manage our anxiety and depression has a major impact on our overall health, including our ability to manage other existing chronic diseases. Further, our nation’s addiction problem continues to spiral out of control. Preliminary data from the CDC shows that approximately 72,000 Americans died from drug overdoses last year, a 5 percent increase from 2018. We have a problem that runs the risk of getting much worse, and, as has been said, remains our epidemic happening within a pandemic

But despite these trends, we have not seen much action on mental health. In such a time of crisis, it seems that we would see leadership from our elected officials to speak to the need to do something more for our communities; it’s been pretty quiet.  

In a new poll from Well Being Trust and ViacomCBS Entertainment & Youth Group data reveal the one (and, seemingly, only) thing nearly all Americans agree on: our lawmakers must do more to address mental health. Ninety-one percent of registered voters say they want elected officials to focus “more” on mental health, with 47 percent going so far as to say our representatives should do “much more.” Such a gobsmacking majority makes it crystal clear that Congress fails its most basic duty to serve the people they’ve pledged to protect. It’s hard to imagine what else 91 percent of our country might agree on. 

And while most of us agree that more needs to be done, the crisis is only deepening. With our collective thumbs in the dam, it feels time to bring in leaders willing and able to set forward a vision for mental health and addiction in this country. There’s an election this November — there will be many new names on the ballot. And if these names, both new and old, want to win the right to represent the people they would be elected to serve, perhaps they should pay attention to mental health issues that are impacting us all, albeit in different ways, right now.  

Seventy-nine percent of voters, according to the same poll, report that the coronavirus crisis has negatively impacted their mental health. As infection rates soar in states across the country, that crisis within a crisis only stands to fester and afflict even more people’s well-being. Congress would do well to pay attention to such staggering numbers during a historic election year as a majority of voters also say they would be “more likely” to vote for a candidate who has a specific policy agenda to improve mental health accessibility and affordability for all. If candidates fail to heed this call, they may lose their seats very well.

Thankfully, there are bright spots at a federal, state, and local level that can give us hope.  

Congress is currently considering what the next round of stimulus dollars can do to support our nation during COVID-19. And while there are encouraging possibilities of more resources going to mental health (a great start), it’s another piece of legislation out there, outside of the stimulus funds, that should be getting more attention. Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.) has introduced legislation to create a new position to help coordinate mental health and addiction across federal agencies. It is a proposal supported by leading mental health groups such as Inseparable. This is a very positive step as one of the most profound things that could happen in the federal government is to have consistent messaging and connecting of where we should go as a nation for mental health and addiction. This position might help navigate some of the rough terrains that are out there in the beltway. However, and most importantly, it could help ensure that mental health was more of a topic in policy discussions throughout the federal government.  

At the state level, and despite the budgetary challenges all states are facing, there are positive signs that mental health has not entirely been forgotten. In California, Governor Newsom soon may have a Bill in front of him that could become model legislation across the country. The federal Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 (MHPAEA) — a landmark federal law prohibits the discrimination of mental health and addiction coverage — is, sadly, not well implemented or enforced by states. As a result, coverage of mental health and addiction care continues to be inadequate, driving up out-of-pocket costs for countless Americans and denying many the treatment they need. The California Bill provides new tools for the state to hold health insurance companies accountable for wrongful denials. It could be a game-changer for California and other states that want to end insurers’ inappropriate limitations of mental health treatment.  

Locally, our cities often find themselves in a place where they must step up and lead. In 2018, 70 percent of Denver, Colorado residents supported putting tax revenues towards addressing Denver’s mental health and substance misuse needs. The result? A new foundation, Caring for Denver, is working to put those critical resources back into the community. But rather than put more money into broken systems and programs that weren’t working before COVID, Caring for Denver is looking at creative ways to change how mental health and substance misuse is addressed in a community, especially now as the current pandemic exacerbates these challenges. Their latest effort will help address mental health in more proactive ways — moving Denver from a criminal justice response to more of a public health, trauma, mental health, and addiction response.

The consistent theme of all of these innovations? Is that they are grounded in leadership. Whether that be a leader who aligns and coordinates, a leader who signs into law something that could impact millions, or leadership at the local level where innovation rarely gets a chance to scale and be seen. While people suffer, we must move to action. The entire country is learning the power of mental health — COVID-19 has forced us to face a level of uncertainty that most of us have never experienced. There is no better time better than the present to begin to place mental health in the center of our priorities and invest in solutions that can help us. And while we wait on our federal, state, and local leaders to step up, let’s remind them that now is not a time to be timid on mental health issues. We are failing with COVID-19, let’s not fail with our nation’s mental health as well.  

Dr. Benjamin F. Miller is the chief strategy officer for Well Being Trust and an advisory board member of Inseparable, two of the nation’s leading mental health organizations.