New Coalition Demands Urgent Action on COVID-19 Mental Health Crisis

Alicia Ault

December 18, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Fourteen mental health organizations have formed a coalition to press federal and state officials to tackle the ongoing and growing mental health crisis that is accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic.

The coalition is offering a roadmap, A Unified Vision for Transforming Mental Health and Substance Abuse Care, which spells out "immediate and long-term changes that will lead to a mental health care system capable of saving our nation," they said in a statement.

The group includes CEOs from the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health, Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, Mental Health America, the National Association for Behavioral Healthcare, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the National Council for Behavioral Health, One Mind, Peg's Foundation, the Steinberg Institute, The Kennedy Forum, the Treatment Advocacy Center, and the Well Being Trust.

They have been meeting in weekly sessions since the beginning of the pandemic. The groups have come together in the spirit of previous efforts to address major health crises, including the 1970s war on cancer and the campaign to curtail the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, they report.

The coalition reported that since the pandemic began the prevalence of depression symptoms has jumped threefold, overdose deaths have increased in 40 states, and 25% of young adults have had suicidal ideation.

"It requires immediate action by the new administration, as well as state and local governments in all 50 states, and an acknowledged, consistent commitment to fix what's broken in our system of care," Daniel H. Gillison, Jr, CEO of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said in a statement.

SAMHSA Chief 'Grateful'

Elinore McCance-Katz, MD, PhD, who is the assistant secretary for mental health and substance use and leads the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), US Department of Health & Human Services, applauded the coalition.

"I am very grateful that these organizations are stepping up and putting out a report like this," McCance-Katz told Medscape Medical News. "I hope that they will continue this kind of advocacy and leadership on these issues going forward," she said, adding that the need for mental health care and substance use disorders will be much greater going forward because of the pandemic.

Seven Policy Areas

The group's 17-page strategic plan emphasizes interventions and methods that have already been tried and tested, focusing on seven policy areas:

  • Early identification and prevention, especially for families and young people, by, for instance, bringing telehealth into schools and community centers.

  • Rapid deployment of emergency crisis response and suicide prevention, including speeding up the implementation of the new 988 number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

  • Leveling inequities in access to care by addressing social and political constructs and historical systemic injustices such as racism.

  • Integrating physical and mental health care and substance use services to ensure "whole-person" well-being.

  • Achieving parity in payment by health plans for mental health and substance-use coverage.

  • Assuring evidence-based standards of treatments and care.

  • Increasing the number and diversity of the mental health care workforce, peer support, and community-based programs.

McCance-Katz said the United States needs more resources, especially to increase the workforce, which has already been insufficient and will be even more so in the near future as the effects of the pandemic continue to ripple out.

SAMHSA received $425 million in the first COVID-19 relief package signed into law in March — the CARES Act. The money was distributed to states and used for direct care for people with serious mental illness and substance use disorders who could not otherwise get care because of virus-related restrictions, and for boosting support for mental health support lines, said McCance-Katz.

A senior SAMHSA spokesperson said the agency is "hopeful that we will see additional resources in the upcoming stimulus for mental health and substance abuse" that Congress is still working on.

"We need bold steps from our government and the business community alike," former Rep Patrick J. Kennedy, founder of The Kennedy Forum, said in the statement from the new coalition. "We encourage all state governments to engage with mental health leaders, bring them into pandemic-related responses, and actively facilitate their communication with communities across the country," said Kennedy, who is a part of the new coalition.

Kennedy is also cochair of the Action Alliance's Mental Health and Suicide Prevention National Response to COVID-19, which unveiled its own six-priority Action Plan earlier in December.

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