The Time for Congress to Act on Mental Health Is Now

I remember vividly being on a call with a mother during the pandemic who was telling me about the loss of her son. Two calls later, another call with another family member describing their own struggle with “darkness.”

While this would be a normal day in the office if I were still seeing patients as a clinician, it was not in a clinical setting these conversations occurred (and this is only a small example). It doesn’t take much to realize that the United States is facing a moment of deep national pain, and the COVID-19 pandemic is not its only source. For decades, but especially the last two years, many of us have been trying to call attention to the underlying problem of mental health and addiction. And since then, the data point to signs that this issue is only getting worse.

In 2020, drug overdose deaths jumped 30 percent, depression rates tripled among U.S. adults and nearly 45,000 Americans took their own lives. The economic cost of these tragic circumstances is in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The human cost is even greater.

There have been positive signs that this administration is paying attention to mental health. We have seen unprecedented investments in mental health and some key leaders vocalizing the problem.

Today, though, there is reason for hope, as two U.S. senators have seen this staggering collection of data, and they have decided to do something about it. Released Thursday by Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), an exemplary policy paper entitled “A Bold Vision for America’s Mental Well-being” lays out a national path to greater resilience, stronger communities, and a reversal of the rise in deaths of despair and mental health challenges that have gripped the country in recent years.

As a policy expert and someone who has seen a fair number of policy papers, this one stood out for a number of reasons.

The paper’s strength comes from its dual focus. While it seeks to address the urgent mental health needs of Americans, it also articulates a long-term strategy for sustainable mental health funding and impactful congressional policy. There are three key aspects involved in addressing these needs that make Bennet and Cornyn’s framework so valuable, several of which have been highlighted in previous congressional hearings on this important issue.

The first is improving access to care by expanding and equipping the workforce that specializes in mental health services. At present, there are not enough workers to meet growing demand for mental health care, and both providers and laypeople need to be empowered and connected to the right communities in order to meet this surge in demand.

Second, Bennet and Cornyn rightfully note that the federal government needs a unified strategy for more effectively directing funding to communities and mental health care providers that are short on resources. As they observe, the federal government spends more than $380 billion per year on mental and behavioral health services, but there is no clear goal of how these funds advance our nation’s mental health. By developing a cohesive strategy to direct those resources, policymakers can increase the per-dollar impact of funding and, most importantly, improve access to care for those who need it most.

Finally, the document recognizes that mental health cannot be addressed purely at the federal level, but will require intense engagement, creativity, and communication from states, cities, schools, and local leaders. Congress can more proactively build relationships with local entities, helping spur and organize efforts to tackle the unique challenges faced by individual communities.

Within these three broader goals, there is also value in the paper’s attentiveness to the needs of America’s diverse populations, as well as marginalized individuals. Solutions to mental health challenges cannot be one-size-fits-all, and by emphasizing the importance of a “humility-based approach” that recognizes our differences and different needs, Sens. Bennet and Cornyn strike just the right tone in how we should approach treatment.

Simply from a policy standpoint, this document could serve as a landmark text that spurs the enactment of critical legislation. But more than that, it has the potential to become the next great bipartisan project that serves the needs of the American people.

There is already a noble tradition of bipartisanship around important policy issues to build on — a tradition that includes the Great Society program of 1965 that sought to eradicate poverty and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 that protected the rights of people with disabilities under law for the first time. Adding to that tradition in a time of heightened polarization would be a welcome message to the American people that Congress can still work to address our most serious problems. Bennet and Cornyn deserve a great deal of credit for beginning to press for substantive, bipartisan solutions to our national mental health crisis.

There is much to be gained from concerted action to provide appropriate mental health care for our fellow citizens. From an economic perspective, healthier, more resilient and more fulfilled individuals bring greater creativity and productivity to the workplace. They bring greater engagement and care to their marriages and family lives. And they bring greater cohesion and flourishing to their local communities. In each place, the benefits of better care for individuals redound to us all.

This conversation, however, cannot ultimately be about economics. It must be about people — and that is what makes the publication of this bipartisan vision so encouraging. It clearly places the American people and their well-being at the center of our policy focus, which is exactly where it should be.

There is serious work still to be done, but thanks to the efforts of two senators and their staffs, we have a significant head start. We shouldn’t let it go to waste. I, for one, look to be able to give the hurting families answers as to how our nation will respond to their loss.

Benjamin F. Miller is a clinical psychologist and president of Well Being Trust, a foundation dedicated to advancing the nation’s mental, social and spiritual health.

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