In Congress, Rare Bipartisan Support for Mental Health Legislation

By Hilary Jochmans

In Congress, Rare Bipartisan Support for Mental Health Legislation


By Hilary Jochmans


In addition to the toll COVID-19 took on Americans physically, the stress, isolation, fear and sadness have also impacted our mental health. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug overdose deaths in the United States during the first year of the pandemic were at a record 100,000.[1] Depression and anxiety surged worldwide by a whopping 25%, says the World Health Organization, with women, youth and those with underlying health factors particularly impacted. Congress is actively looking to provide legislative solutions to these complex health issues.

One of the most robust legislative packages working its way through Congress is the Restoring Hope for Mental Health and Well-Being Act of 2022. This comprehensive measure would reauthorize certain programs relating to mental health and substance use disorders. Specifically, it would address maternal mental health and substance use disorders; prevention and treatment of mental and behavioral health issues for veterans, members of the Armed Forces and first responders; eating disorders; school-based mental health services; coverage of mental and behavioral health care through Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, including for juveniles in public institutions; and integration of behavioral health in primary care settings.

While this measure awaits action across the Capitol, several committees in the closely held Democratic Senate are working to produce a comprehensive measure to deal with mental health and addiction. Senate leaders had hoped to have a bill by the August recess but, as of this writing, that self-imposed deadline will not be met.

There are dozens of smaller, targeted mental health care bills pending in Congress. Some address veterans, access to counseling services or telehealth services, insurance issues, prescription drugs and even social media, which is believed to be a trigger for mental health problems in youth. One such measure that was recently implemented is the new three-digit number (988) for a national suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline. This legislative creation was first proposed pre-COVID-19, but was passed and signed into law in the height of the pandemic in the fall of 2020.

Veterans have suffered disproportionally from mental health ailments. In order to help address this crisis, the House passed the STRONG Veterans Act. This measure would require the Veterans Administration to update training for their workforce and Veterans Crisis Line staff, designate a Buddy Check Week to organize outreach events and educate veterans on conducting peer wellness checks, and update the Veterans Justice Outreach Program, including conducting program outreach to justice-involved veterans.

Additionally, provisions to increase funding for mental health programs were included in the recently enacted bipartisan Safer Communities Act. Monies would be provided to award grants to states to expand Medicaid or Children’s Health Insurance Program assistance through school-based entities and the Pediatric Mental Health Care Access program, which promotes behavioral health integration into pediatric primary care by supporting mental health care telehealth access initiatives.

But, as House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairwoman Diana DeGette (D-CO) said, “There’s no single problem with mental health in this country and so, therefore, there’s no single solution.” She went on to add at a hearing, “We need to look at a multifaceted way to support America’s health and well-being.”

When this article is published, we will be about a month out from the key midterm elections. Democrats hold a narrow majority in Congress, a position likely to change after Nov. 8, with Republicans possibly taking control of the House and/or the Senate. In the final days of this Congress, members on both sides of the aisle should be working furiously to pass broad bipartisan legislation on which they can campaign in their districts. All 435 members of the House and 35 senators are up for reelection.

With an issue like mental health that impacts all Americans, this should be a prime target for legislative action. Elected officials on both sides of the aisle have shared their personal stories of mental health struggles, including addictions, suicide and overdoses. But unfortunately, time is a precious commodity in the Capitol. There are many national priorities that must be addressed before the curtain closes on the 117th Congress on Dec. 31, 2022.

President Biden has also weighed in on the mental health care debate. During his State of the Union, he outlined how the federal government could address the mental health care crisis. Included in his broad proposal is a provision of particular note to lawyers, as he seeks to increase mental health resources for people working in the justice system.

Biden cites a study that shows an estimated 40% of the incarcerated population have a mental illness, but only one-third of those individuals receive treatment. The president has directed the Department of Justice to expand funding to communities and corrections systems to provide behavioral health care, family services and transitional programming for adults returning home.

One issue that arose repeatedly in Congressional hearings on mental health was the need to develop a broader and more diverse workforce to assist those needing care. Missing from this discussion is the inclusion of lawyers in the mental health care ecosystem. NYSBA President Sherry Levin Wallach has seen the need to explore the connection between the mental health crisis and our civil and criminal justice systems. As part of her presidency, she has created the Task Force on Mental Health and Trauma Impacted Representation. This group of mental health and legal experts will consider how the bar association can better serve adults and children living with mental illness and/or trauma histories. The task force seeks to explore ways attorneys and other working in the judiciary can better serve the community through trauma-informed practice. These and other issues will be further explored and developed in the coming months.

If you, or someone you know, needs assistance, remember there is no shame in seeking and receiving help. Even in the absence of additional congressional action; help is out there.

Resources available to NYSBA members seeking assistance include the NYSBA LAP Hotline, available 24/7 and staffed by mental health professionals. Through this service, members can access referrals to counselors and receive up to four free sessions. Additionally, the LAP is available to assist lawyers, judges, law students and their families. Membership is not required.

If you or someone you know needs mental health help, text “STRENGTH” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor.


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