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Our Nation’s Growing Mental Health Crisis: Time for Action

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and the United States is likely more aware of mental health concerns than ever before. Since 2020 we’ve experienced a pandemic, inflation, the Great Resignation, effects of the war in Ukraine, and more. As a result, there are unprecedented mental health impacts on families and communities. In December, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a rare warning that our nation’s youth are experiencing devastating mental health impacts. We’re also seeing alarming trends around substance use; new data indicates 2021 was the deadliest year for fatal overdoses in our nation’s history.

With these concerning reports, there is a bright spot: Americans are seeking mental health and addiction care at unprecedented rates, and the stigma associated with doing so is fading away.

However, this new surge in demand for care is colliding with an overextended workforce. Mental health and addiction treatment organizations struggle to remain open due to intensifying staff shortages and historically low reimbursement rates that are fueling the workforce churn. If you have recently tried scheduling a mental health service—particularly for your child—you’ve likely encountered providers who cannot accept new patients or have extremely long wait times.

As the U.S. prepares the July 2022 launch of 988 (a three-digit dialing code for mental health emergencies), the surge in demand will grow even more because consumers will finally have a direct, easy way to find mental health crisis services. While it’s a major milestone for our nation, no one could have predicted the current issue of rapidly rising demand for services and a rapidly dwindling workforce to meet that demand.

To meet the growing need for mental health services and the vision of 988, U.S. lawmakers must take decisive action in three specific ways.

First, we need investments in the behavioral health workforce, particularly by supporting a model known as Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics (CCBHC). This model can play a transformative role in addressing workforce shortages, creating a more seamless care delivery system, and ensuring providers meet quality metrics. CCBHCs are also required to provide 24/7 mental health crisis services—a key element of meeting our nation’s 988 resourcing needs.

Passage of the Excellence in Mental Health and Addiction Treatment Act would accelerate CCBHCs and play a significant role in bolstering the U.S. behavioral health workforce and infrastructure.

Second, we must fully utilize our current workforce and existing technologies, like telehealth, to optimize patient access. Today hundreds of thousands of master-level therapists (clinical mental health counselors and marriage/family therapists) are sidelined from providing treatment because of antiquated regulations that prevent them from serving Medicare beneficiaries.

Additionally, the pandemic has proven that telehealth works as a viable care option. Yet despite robust data demonstrating successful telehealth outcomes, some federal and state laws are attempting to roll back telehealth accessibility.

Passage of the Mental Health Access Improvement Act and the Telemental Health Care Access Act would ensure we fully utilize the tools we already have available to meet the growing need.

Third, we need meaningful enforcement of mental health and addiction treatment parity laws to ensure insurance plans provide the same level of coverage for behavioral health care as they do for other medical care. Lack of enforcement has resulted in denials of care, more providers moving to private practices because rates are not tenable, and an overall loss of access to life-saving care.

The proposed Parity Implementation Assistance Act seeks to ensure states are able to implement and enforce parity laws that increase critical access for consumers.

As more Americans reach out for help, we as citizens must act with urgency. Our nation has an opportunity to reshape access to mental health as we know it today and truly meet the growing need for mental health services. Please urge your lawmakers to pass comprehensive, bipartisan mental health legislation to bolster our workforce, increase telehealth, and enforce mental health parity laws. Let’s do all we can to ensure that when 988 goes live in July, anyone, anywhere in the U.S. can access mental health services when they reach out.

Lauren Conaboy is vice president of National Policy for Centerstone. She is a former therapist with nearly two decades of public policy experience.  She holds a dual master’s degree in clinical social work and marriage & family therapy from the University of Louisville and a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Wisconsin—Stevens Point.

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