HHS announces $3B to address pandemic-related mental health issues, substance use

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The Department of Health and Human Services on Tuesday announced $3 billion in funding for states, tribes and territories to address mental health and substance use challenges relating to the pandemic.

The American Rescue Plan funding will go to block grant programs, with $1.5 billion each allocated to the Community Mental Health Services block grant program and Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment block grant program. The funding follows on $2.5 billion announced in March, according to a news release.

“The COVID-19 pandemic and the corresponding economic crisis have been especially devastating for Black, American Indian, Alaska Native and Hispanic communities, who are experiencing a disproportionate number of COVID-19 infections and deaths as well as higher-than-average unemployment rates,” an HHS release reads. “Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) populations have experienced increased stigma and hate due to COVID-19 anti-Asian rhetoric, which is impacting the behavioral health of AANHPI communities.”

The HHS cited the CDC’s preliminary figures on overdose deaths, nearly 90,000 such deaths in the year ending last September, marking 20,000 more than the year prior. That toll is the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a year since the opioid epidemic began in the 1990s, The New York Times reported.

Nationally, the CDC has attributed the nationwide increase in overdose deaths to disruptions to daily life caused by the pandemic as well as street formulations laced with the powerful painkiller fentanyl.

HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra also announced a new Behavioral Health Coordinating Council (BHCC), which will aim to “facilitate collaborative, innovative, transparent, equitable, and action-oriented approaches to addressing the HHS’ behavioral health agenda” and “is comprised of senior leadership from across the Department.”

“Behavioral health is a priority for the Department of Health and Human Services. The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear the need to invest resources in our nation’s mental health and address the inequities that still exist around behavioral health care. That’s why we are making this historic investment in mental health and substance use services,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra in the release. “In addition, this national problem calls for Department-wide coordination to address the issue. That’s why I am convening the Behavioral Health Coordinating Council to work across HHS to facilitate collaboration and strategic planning as we implement our behavioral health agenda.”

Dr. Rachel Levine, assistant secretary for health, noted a “startling rise in mental health and substance use disorders during the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

“We know multiple stressors during the pandemic – isolation, sickness, grief, job loss, food instability, and loss of routines – have devastated many Americans and presented the unprecedented behavioral health challenges across the nation,” she said. “Addressing the COVID-19 mental and behavioral health impacts on vulnerable and disenfranchised populations are among the top priorities of the Biden-Harris Administration. Establishing a new Behavioral Health Coordinating Council will assure the right prioritization and guidelines are in place to provide pathways to prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery services.”

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