HHS to Inject Billions Into Mental Health, Substance Use Disorders

Alicia Ault

May 19, 2021

The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will inject billions of dollars into programs designed to address mental health and substance use disorders, including $3 billion released to states as of Tuesday, said federal officials.

The American Rescue Plan, a COVID-relief package signed into law in March, contained the money, which will be divided equally between the Community Mental Health Services Block Grant Program and the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant Program, said Acting Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use Tom Coderre, in a call with reporters.

The award amounts will vary by state.

The mental health program helps states and territories provide services for children with serious emotional issues and adults with serious mental illness.

The substance use program provides money to plan, implement, and evaluate prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery services.

Putting money into these programs is especially important in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, which fueled an increase in anxiety, depression, and overdoses, said Assistant Secretary for Health Rachel Levine, MD, on the call.

"We know multiple stressors during the pandemic — isolation, sickness, grief, job loss, food instability, and loss of routines — have devastated many Americans and presented the unprecedented behavioral health challenges across the nation," said Levine.

HHS also announced that it is re-establishing a Behavioral Health Coordinating Council (BHCC). Levine and Coderre will serve as cochairs of the Council, which will coordinate action-oriented approaches to addressing HHS's behavioral health efforts.

However, in 2014, the US Government Accountability Office criticized the BHCC for only focusing on HHS, and noted the lack of coordination across the federal government's various efforts to address mental health.

"A Huge Step Forward"

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) welcomed the new money and the return of the Council.

"In the wake of the pandemic an unprecedented, and as of yet untold, number of Americans are faced with mental health and substance use disorders, particularly in communities impacted by structural racism," said APA President Vivian Pender, MD, in a statement. "With the creation of this Council and this investment in mental health, the administration is taking a huge step forward." 

APA CEO and Medical Director Saul Levin, MD, MPA, added: "This Council has great potential to ease the challenges we face as we begin to recover from the pandemic's impact on our society, and APA looks forward to assisting in their efforts." 

HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra noted in a statement that the COVID-19 pandemic "has made clear the need to invest resources in our nation's mental health and address the inequities that still exist around behavioral healthcare." He added, "This national problem calls for department-wide coordination to address the issue."

Levine said the Council "will assure the right prioritization and guidelines are in place to provide pathways to prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery services."

Alicia Ault is a Lutherville, Maryland-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in publications including Smithsonian.com, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. You can find her on Twitter @aliciaault.

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