Rep. Anna Eshoo speaks out on mental health amid COVID-19
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo huddled with Rep. Anna Eshoo before the hearing began. Photo by Elizabeth Mendez.

With the coronavirus pandemic fueling stress and anxiety, U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo of Palo Alto said this week that it’s critical for citizens to have access to mental health resources.

“In any given year, one in five adults experience a mental health illness such as depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder, but 2020 has been a year like no other,” Eshoo said. “In a recent poll, half of adults report that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to the coronavirus. One can only imagine the mental impacts on the American families who are grieving the loss of their loved ones due to the virus.”

The congresswoman was speaking at a virtual subcommittee hearing Tuesday to discuss a slew of legislation intended to tackle suicide and addiction and increase overall access to mental health care services.

Twenty-two bills are being considered, including: the Campaign to Prevent Suicide Act, which would launch a national suicide prevention media campaign; the Mental Health Services for Students Act of 2019, which would expand school-based mental health programs; and H.R. 6645, an unnamed bill that would allocate $100 million for each of fiscal years 2021 through 2025 for research to strengthen the mental health response to COVID-19.

Dr. Arthur Evans, Jr., the chief executive officer for the American Psychological Association, told lawmakers Tuesday that the mental health care system was already facing serious challenges prior to the pandemic. He said less than half of the individuals with a mental health disorder typically receive treatment.

“We now have a pandemic that is creating a number of psychological challenges for individuals,” he said. “We have on top of that an economic crisis that is also contributing to the psychological distress of Americans. And then on top of that, more recently, we have been dealing with systemic racism and the impact that has on many of our fellow Americans.”

Explaining that the recent turmoil has led to an increase in anxiety, depression, eating disorders and post-traumatic stress, Evans urged the representatives to invest in mental health resources.

The subcommittee also heard from Patrick Kennedy, a former U.S. representative and the founder of The Kennedy Forum, a nonprofit that works to unite mental health advocates. He discussed his personal past struggle with addiction and said it’s time for the nation to treat substance abuse and mental disorders with the same concern given to physical ailments.

Eshoo questioned why some previous efforts to improve mental health care have failed, and asked Kennedy what he considered to be the “major pillars” of mental health reform.

“I would say it all revolves around the money,” he said. “…You see what’s important based upon what you spend your money on, and clearly when mental health gets .04 percent of the CARES Act funding, it says a lot about where mental health is in this country.”

When it comes to discussing mental health, Arriana Gross, a 15-year old student from Covington, Georgia, asked the lawmakers to remember that children and teenagers can also suffer from mental distress. Some adolescents are uncomfortable asking for help, she said, and others come from families who can’t afford the cost of care.

“I have seen first-hand the need for support for student mental health. In our school, a year doesn’t go by without a student dying by suicide,” said Gross, who serves as a national youth advisory board member for the Sandy Hook Promise Students Against Violence Everywhere Promise Club.

As the hearing concluded, Eshoo thanked the witnesses and said it was clear the nation faces serious challenges. But the congresswoman said she hoped this difficult period would present an opportunity to “right the wrongs” in society.

“I think that when we are called and judged that we will be judged on how we cared for each other,” she said. “And I think more than anything else that’s what the hearing was about today.”

Contact Katie King at [email protected] or follow @KatieKingCST on Twitter.

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