Senator Murray Calls for Action on Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder Crises Worsened by COVID-19 Pandemic
Murray chairs HELP hearing to shed light on how COVID-19 has exacerbated mental health and substance use disorder crises
Murray spoke about the shortage of mental health care workers, the potential for tools like telehealth to help people get care, and the importance of addressing root causes of stress, anxiety, depression, and trauma
Last year the U.S. saw a record-setting number of drug overdose deaths
Senator Murray: “Even before this pandemic, we were fighting epidemics of suicide, mental health issues, and drug overdoses with a health workforce that was stretched far too thin.”
Senator Murray: “As we work to recover from this pandemic and rebuild our nation stronger and fairer, it’s important we recognize mental health as a priority in our work.”
***WATCH SENATOR MURRAY’S OPENING REMARKS HERE***
(Washington, D.C.) – Today, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, led a hearing focused on addressing the mental health and substance use disorder crises which have been dramatically worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. In her opening remarks, Senator Murray discussed how people across the country have been struggling with stress, anxiety, depression, and trauma due to the pandemic, and cited data showing the U.S. saw the highest number of annual drug overdose deaths last year and stories from hospitals in Washington state that have seen a sharp uptick in youth mental health emergencies. She also discussed how these crises have been especially hard on communities of color and rural communities and stressed that making mental health care and substance use disorder treatment a priority is essential to help the nation recover from the COVID-19 crisis.
“As we work to recover from this pandemic, and rebuild our nation stronger and fairer, it’s important we recognize mental health as a priority in our work. We have to address the unseen scars of trauma, depression, addiction, and other mental health issues. And the reality is, that healing those scars won’t be quick or easy—this will take years, and we must act accordingly,” said Senator Murray.
During her remarks, Senator Murray highlighted the importance of investing in the recruitment and training of mental health care professionals who are able to meet the needs of struggling Americans. Almost 120 million Americans live in areas with a mental health care provider shortage. Washington state’s mental health care workforce is only able to meet around 12 percent of the state’s needs.
“The challenge isn’t just that more people need mental health care in the wake of this pandemic—it’s that too many people can’t get it,” said Senator Murray. “Even before this pandemic, we were fighting epidemics of suicide, mental health issues, and drug overdoses with a health workforce that was stretched far too thin.”
The hearing included testimony from Dr. Jonathan Muther, Vice President of Medical Services-Behavioral Health at Salud Family Health Centers, Dr. Tami Benton, Psychiatrist-in-Chief and Executive Director and Chair of the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Sara Goldsby, Director of the South Carolina Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services, and Dr. Andy Keller, President, CEO, and Linda Perryman Evans Presidential Chair of the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute.
Senator Murray’s opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, are below:
This pandemic has taken a devastating toll.
It has forced millions of people out of work, and students out of school.
It has taken over 570 thousand of our loved ones.
And the loss, stress, loneliness, and trauma it has caused are doing immense harm to our mental health.
And it has been especially hard on essential workers, health care workers, and others on the frontlines of this crisis.
Around half of adults in our country say the stress and worry of this pandemic has impacted their mental wellbeing.
And when it comes to our youth, what I’m hearing from people in my state is incredibly alarming.
Seattle Children’s Hospital in Washington state is seeing 170 children with mental health emergencies a week—compared to 50 before the pandemic.
Sacred Heart Children’s Hospital in Spokane saw admissions to its adolescent psychiatric unit and admissions to its pediatric floor for behavioral health issues both rise by around 70 percent.
Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma has seen mental health admissions increase by two-thirds.
Central Washington Hospital saw a similar increase in non-fatal suicide attempts for minors.
And suicide rates in King County are up 30 percent for youth.
And when it comes to the issue of substance use disorder, a record 87,000 people, at least, are estimated to have died from drug overdoses in our country over the last year.
Overdose deaths in my state increased by 38 percent over the first half of 2020. With the biggest increases being among Black, Latino, and Tribal Communities.
We must do more to address this tragic loss of life, as well as the terrifying effects we are learning COVID can have on mental health—with one study suggesting a third of patients received a neurological or psychological diagnosis after their infection.
And the challenge isn’t just that more people need mental health care in the wake of this pandemic—it’s that too many people can’t get it.
One third of adults who say the pandemic has impacted their mental health, also say they there was a time this past year they did not get the mental health care they needed… most often because they couldn’t afford it, or couldn’t find a provider.
And over half of high risk children are not getting the mental health care they need with care farthest out of reach for Black children.
Of course, while these are serious problems, they are not new ones.
Even before this pandemic, we were fighting epidemics of suicide, mental health issues, and drug overdoses with a health workforce that was stretched far too thin.
Almost 120 million Americans live in areas with a mental health care provider shortage—essentially meaning they don’t have even one mental health care provider per 30 thousand people.
In Washington, our mental health care workforce is only able to meet 12 percent of our state’s needs.
And these challenges are especially hard on communities of color, and rural communities who often struggle the most to get mental health care.
As we work to recover from this pandemic, and rebuild our nation stronger and fairer…
It’s important we recognize mental health as a priority in our work.
We have to address the unseen scars of trauma, depression, addiction, and other mental health issues.
And the reality is, that healing those scars won’t be quick or easy—this will take years, and we must act accordingly.
When we passed the SUPPORT Act in 2018 to respond to the opioid crisis—I made clear it was only a first step, and that I would be pushing for more action, and more funding.
This pandemic is a painful reminder that our work remains far from finished.
We need to make significant investments in programs that already exist to help our communities fight mental health issues, and substance use disorders.
We need to make dedicated, annual investments in our public health infrastructure and the local health departments on the frontlines of these fights.
And we need to make it easier for people to get the care they need, by taking steps like President Biden announced yesterday to increase access to opioid use disorder treatment and by looking at how to best use new tools like telehealth to reach more patients, while ensuring equity and quality.
Steps Congress took in the CARES Act to temporarily expand access to telehealth services have made it easier for patients to get mental health care quickly, discreetly, and conveniently.
But we must not let the promise of telehealth be limited by a lack of access to broadband—especially in rural communities and communities of color—and a lack of mental health care professionals to keep up with the demand for this care.
We must also remember that telehealth is no replacement for making sure people have quality, affordable providers in their communities.
Which is why we need to recruit, train, and retain enough mental health care professionals to actually meet our nation’s needs, and make sure they practice in underserved communities.
And I hope we’ll be able to work in a bipartisan way to tackles these challenges.
Finally, any good doctor knows you can’t just treat the symptom, you have to look at root causes.
We need to help people get the care they need for stress, anxiety, depression, and more.
But we also need to address the issues that have caused so much pain this past year.
That includes not only the pandemic, but systemic racism, gun violence, and an economy that works great for those at the very top and doesn’t work well for anyone else.
I look forward to the work our committee can do on these issues and mental health and substance use disorders—we have a record of bipartisan work on some of this already.
And I’m going to continue to press for action.
Now I’ll recognize Ranking Member Burr for his opening remarks.
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