September Policy & Advocacy Update

Mental Health Workers Deserve Mental Health Help

James Curtin, MBA, LCADC

Why doesn’t the Federal Government treat our citizens’ mental health just as it does defense spending and infrastructure? Our nation’s infrastructure needs to prioritize the people. A majority of peers do not doubt the need to upgrade bridges, tunnels, highways, and other infrastructure across the country, nor to they dispute the need for a strong military for protection. When it comes down to the bare bones of the situation, infrastructure relies on and begins with people.

According to our Department of Defense, the President’s budget has approximately $706 billion for military spending and, of course, we’ve all read about the infrastructure bill wrangling that’s been going on in DC for what feels like forever. Our government wants to spend one trillion dollars on infrastructure and possibly another three trillion in the future! Now, compare this immense amount to the approximate ten billion dollar budget for the leading authority in substance abuse and mental health (SAMSA) for the Federal fiscal year of 2022. The difference is astronomical. On top of the already outrageous disparity, this is coming during a year when funding for SAMHSA is significantly higher compared to the previous fiscal year.

For decades, mental health and substance use has been a public health crisis. In fact, it was at epidemic levels long before the pandemic. By the CDC’s own recent report, fatal drug overdoses were up almost 30% with an estimated 93,000 deaths during the pandemic. These are staggering numbers.

The New York Times ran a story in June about the correlation between teenage girls and suicide during the pandemic. Although all groups’ mental health has suffered greatly during the pandemic, some have been hit extraordinarily hard. Remember how difficult it seemed to be an adolescent growing up, even in “normal” times? Picture yourself as a teenager struggling through the pandemic.

The US Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy recently stated that greater than 50% of public health workers reported burnout. He put it simply, “our helpers need help”. Even those working in the mental health field avoid seeking treatment due to the stigma against mental illness. Many have left the workforce during the pandemic due to their own personal struggles coupled with having to support countless others’ mental health. Sometimes it’s easy for us to forget that healthcare workers are people first, helpers second.

According to a new poll by the National Council, nearly half of all Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, and LGBTQ+ individuals say they have personally experienced increased mental health challenges over the past 12 months, but few received treatment. Chuck Ingogolia, National Council President and CEO states, “The COVID-19 pandemic has spared no one, and now we’re facing a second public health crisis – a mental health and substance use crisis – and the impact on Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American and LGBTQ+ individuals represents an immediate concern”.

More federal funding for mental health is needed to demonstrate a commitment to adequately address the mental health and substance use disorders that affect millions of Americans. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) announced the availability of $103 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to reduce burnout and support the mental health of the health workforce.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) announced the availability of $103 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to reduce burnout and support the mental health of the health workforce.

While this is a good start, we likely need 5 times this amount of money to really provide the support necessary for these heroes across our country. This is just one small example of how one of our priority populations during the pandemic need to be supported.

Funding should:

  1. Strengthen, support, and expand the mental health/substance use disorder workforce. This can be achieved by investing in educational training, career development, and loan forgiveness within both fields of mental health and substance abuse.
  2. Invest in the digital mental health/substance use disorder infrastructure to support the ongoing use and expansion of telehealth behavioral services and electronic health information exchange, keeping in mind the need for equitable access to technology for marginalized communities.
  3. Build capacity to broaden access to comprehensive care. This can be achieved by significantly expanding federal investment in the community-based system of mental health and substance use disorder.
  4. Expand affordable stable housing opportunities and enforce anti-discrimination protections. These are important factors to support successful reentry from incarceration and sustained health for people with mental health and substance use disorder histories.

Now is the time to reconsider how we really view our nation’s mental health challenges. Just about every news outlet, politician, and average citizen recognize that without healthy people, there is no healthy country.

-James Curtin, Chief Business & Government Relations Officer

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