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Blunt warns of “perfect storm impacting mental health” during COVID-19 pandemic

Missouri U.S. Senator Roy Blunt discussed the need to recognize and address the mounting mental health and addiction issues surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

Last month, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported nearly a 900% increase in the number of calls to its Disaster Distress Helpline over this time last year. Missouri received nearly $14 million to support mental health and addiction services at five CCBHCs in Missouri last month.

Watch or read his remarks below:

“Mr. President, we’ve seen things in the pandemic crisis that nobody in living memory has dealt with. In so many ways we’re writing the book and trying to read the book at the same time, trying to figure out how we get to where we need to be. Clearly, there’s been an incredible strain on the American economy and an incredible strain on the American health care system and everybody involved with that. Public health experts have told us we have to flatten the curve and the economic cost of flattening the curve was pretty great. On the other side of that equation, the impact on hospitals was significant in that many of them have been ready and waiting for whatever they needed to do. …

“The crisis, because of flattening the curve, has certainly lasted longer and will last longer than it would have others. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, I’m just saying measures like closing businesses and sending people home from work, practicing social distancing, putting people on the unemployment rolls have really created serious problems for people that have caused challenges to their mental well-being. I think the impact is that nearly half of the adults in the United States say that the coronavirus has impacted their mental health.

“Now, this is on top of the statistic where we traditionally believe, at the National Institutes of Health and other places, that one out of four or one out of five adult Americans has a diagnosable, and I wouldn’t hesitate to add, an almost always treatable mental health problem. But coming through the coronavirus, again, one half of all adults say that their mental health has been impacted by that, whether that was social distancing or everybody trying to do everything that you’d normally do at other places at home. Maybe it was economic uncertainty. That, along with the isolation, can certainly create depression and anxiety. It’s in almost all cases likely to be worse for people that had a prior mental health problem or prior mental health diagnosis. But those aren’t the only people that have been affected.

“Addiction issues have become a bigger problem again than they were six months ago. People that don’t have access to their support system, people that were moving, with great focus on the part of the federal government and many state governments, away from opioid addiction are in a situation where they’re isolated, they’re depressed, they’re concerned about job or family or health and beginning to think ‘what was that one thing that really made me feel good’ and ‘well, maybe I could just do that one more time and have that great feeling and I wouldn’t get addicted again.’ It turns out addiction doesn’t work that way. So you know, we see people with unprecedented challenges as this almost perfect storm impacting mental health hits us.

“Last month, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported nearly a 900% increase in the number of calls to its Disaster and Distress Hotline over this time last year. Nine times as many people calling that distress helpline, that disaster distress hotline, than were calling a year ago. Practitioners in behavioral health issues see the impact every day, they’re certainly warning that this could produce its own second wave of impact that lasts well beyond the time we have a treatment for coronavirus because people, even if they’ve had the vaccine, even if they’ve stopped worrying about the coronavirus, have found themselves in a place with their mental health issues that they don’t want to but might not be able to figure out how to get out of. If we don’t respond quickly and we don’t respond forcefully, we could certainly lose more lives to this pandemic.

“The new study from the Well Being Trust estimates that 75,000 more people will die from things like suicide and substance abuse because of the pandemic. We’re already seeing evidence that that may be a place where we’re moving. My hometown newspaper, the Springfield News-Leader, reported this week that Greene County, my home county, the first place I was elected as a county official, has already received a 25% uptick in suicide and overdose deaths in the last couple of months.

“Mr. President, May is Mental Health Awareness Month, I think it’s appropriate for us to talk about the ways that coronavirus has widened the gap in the medical system between access to physical health issues and access to mental health issues. This is the month and the time we need to realize that you can’t separate those issues. We need to realize that those issues are of equal concern and need to be treated equally. …

“In the CARES Act, the Congress did provide $425 million for substance abuse and mental health services. That includes more than half of that, $250 million, to Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics, $50 million for suicide prevention, and $100 million for emergency response grants to address substance and mental health disorders. Federal resources are critical, but, Mr. President, most of the response and most of the important work will be done at the local level. And so the Congress also unanimously agreed in the CARES Act to extend the Excellence in Mental Health and Addiction Treatment demonstration program through November the 30th. …

“We’ve expanded this program, it was first authorized in 2014 in some legislation that Senator Stabenow from Michigan and I had sponsored at the time. It created the whole concept of Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics that care for patients regardless of where they live or their ability to pay, 24 hour, seven-day-a-week access. It was necessary if you’re going to be part of that program, you can get preventative screenings. You have care coordination with your other health care providers, and by the way, Mr. President, if you’ve got a behavioral health issue, it clearly has impact on what other health issues you might have. And if you’re dealing with that behavioral health issue in the right way, you’re going to save a lot of money and a lot of caregiver time. In most cases, as you deal with your other issues, if you’re doing what you should be doing, if you’re feeling better about yourself, if you’re taking your medicine, eating better, sleeping better, showing up for appointments, your other health costs are going to go down.

“So not only is this the right thing to do, but it also, in my view, will turn out to be a money saving thing to do to invest money where it needs to be invested. In the eight states that have the certified centers under the Excellence Act, those patients have reported a 62% reduction in both hospitalization and emergency room visits. That one statistic on its own may have offset whatever investment we made in this mental health program. People not going to emergency rooms, obviously means you’re less likely to come in contact with people that COVID-19 or some other virus.

“We need to be sure [we’re] using telehealth to connect you with your health care provider, whether that’s a mental health provider or another provider – critically important. People who are struggling with mental health or addiction are particularly challenged right now. We need to let them know that they are not forgotten and no matter how alone they feel, they are not alone. The Congress is paying attention to this. But we need to pay attention to the people on the frontlines who are assuring that the right things are done in the right way at the right time.”

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