A recent spate of mass shootings, including an attack on a Texas elementary school that killed 19 young children and two teachers, has brought mental health back into the national spotlight.
“There is a serious youth mental health crisis in this country.” President Joe Biden said last week in a prime-time speech on gun violence, in which he called for a banning of assault weapons and other reforms as lawmakers try to iron out a compromise. “We have 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 help protect children from the harms of social media.
“It’s important,” Biden said. “I just told you what I was going to do. The question now is what will Congress do?”
A group of bipartisan senators, led by Democrat Chris Murphy and Republican John Cornyn, are considering a weapons reform package that would include mental health funding. Negotiations are underway, with Murphy saying he is “more confident than ever” that a compromise can be reached, but Democrats need 10 Republican senators to pass any gun legislation to overcome the House’s 60-vote filibuster.
While those gun talks remain in the air, several congressional committees have been laying the foundation for months on bipartisan packages to improve mental health services and fight substance abuse after the coronavirus pandemic highlighted the need for more access to care.
The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Work and Pensions (HELP) and the Senate Finance Committee in February set a goal to introduce comprehensive legislation this summer, although the two committees have not still released a more detailed timing.
The Senate Finance Committee released its first set of policy drafts related to telemedicine services on May 26 and said further policy drafts could be published in the coming weeks.
Also in May, the Chamber’s Energy and Commerce Commission put forward a package that would reauthorize more than 30 mental health and substance abuse programs due 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 adopted for a full vote.
Chuck Ingoglia, president and chief executive officer of the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, said in his 20 years of advocacy that he has never seen Congress devote “so much time, energy and attention” to mental health issues.
“I am confident that a bill will pass this year,” Ingoglia told ABC News. “And then the second question, which is really important, is how broad or comprehensive is it?”
Sarah Corcoran, vice president of government relations at Guide Consulting Services, said a package “should be substantial enough to really transform the system from where we are to what it needs to be to meet the current level of need.”
At the end of last year, several organizations representing children’s health workers declared a national youth mental health emergency. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also reported that emergency room visits for suicide attempts among teenage girls had increased more than 50% at the start of the pandemic. United States surgeon general Vivek Murthy told the Senate Finance Committee in a hearing earlier this year that the pandemic had a “devastating” impact on the mental health of young Americans.
Many of the proposals discussed by Senate and House panels are about what lawmakers focused on in the aftermath of the Uvalde shooting: youth mental health and school services.
Republicans in particular have favored measures such as financing mental health and increased school safety as talks about possible gun control reforms continue on Capitol Hill, though supporters say rhetoric blaming the shootings solely on mental illness is harmful and inaccurate.
Democratic Senator Patty Murray, chair of the HELP committee, said she wanted the package to help “schools and communities meet children’s mental health needs.”
Other priorities outlined by Murray during a hearing in March include suicide screening and prevention, reducing overdose deaths, and addressing the mental health needs of new mothers.
The Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, has identified five areas of need for potential legislative action, including strengthening mental health care for children and youth, expanding telemedicine services, and strengthening the workforce for behavioral health. Republican and Democratic panel members joined together to address each area.
Draft policies released last week would remove the in-person Medicare requirement for those seeking telephone or virtual mental health treatment and incentivize states to use their child health insurance program (CHIP) to better meet needs. Behavioral Health in Schools Through Telemedicine: A Step That Could Provide Relief to Those Living in Mental Health Deserts. An ABC analysis found that 75 percent of the country’s rural counties have no mental health providers or fewer than 50 providers for every 100,000 people.
President Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Tweeted days after the Uvalde shooting that “time has passed for a comprehensive approach to addressing the mental health crisis.”