The Senate Finance Committee held a hearing on Feb. 8 titled “Protecting Youth Mental Health: Part I - An Advisory and Call to Action.” The hearing continued the committee’s ongoing bipartisan focus on addressing barriers to mental health care and specifically focused on the mental health challenges facing the nation’s youth. The AAMC previously responded to Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Ranking Member Mike Crapo’s (R-Idaho) September 2021 request for input on developing policy proposals and bipartisan legislation to address barriers to mental health care [refer to Washington Highlights, Nov. 19, 2021].
In his opening statement, Wyden emphasized the dangers of failing to act. “Our country is in danger of losing much of a generation if mental health care is business as usual,” he stated. “For families across America, this is the issue that dominates their kitchens and living rooms. With the Children’s Health Insurance Program and Medicaid, the largest payer of mental health care for our young, within this committee’s jurisdiction, the Finance Committee must step up with solutions.”
He went on to highlight the impact of the COVID-19 public health emergency (PHE) on children’s ongoing struggles to access mental and behavioral health. “Diagnosing an issue and getting the right care for young people was already too difficult before anyone had heard of COVID-19,” said Wyden. “The crisis is even larger today. Kids are feeling isolated and depression is up. Suicide attempts are up. An estimated 140,000 children have lost a parent or a caretaker to COVID-19, and that number will continue to rise.”
Crapo echoed in his opening statement Wyden’s concerns about children’s mental health. “Our nation is confronting an unprecedented range of challenges, many of which have serious implications for the mental health of all Americans — especially children,” he stated. He also called out obstacles that developed throughout the pandemic, noting that “From school closures to lockdowns and other COVID-related restrictions, the pandemic has intensified feelings of social isolation, helplessness and anxiety. Since the pandemic began, we have witnessed alarming spikes in suicide attempts and suicidal ideation among teenagers, along with a staggering rise in drug overdose deaths.”
Crapo also highlighted the impact of ongoing workforce shortages that have been exacerbated by the PHE. “Strengthening the mental and behavioral health workforce will also prove vital, especially in the face of widespread provider stress, fatigue and burnout, which the pandemic has escalated,” he stated. “I hear every day from doctors, nurses and other health care professionals across Idaho who are looking to reduce hours or leave their practices entirely in the months to come, confronted with an unprecedented range of demands.”
The committee heard from one witness, Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, MD, MBA. In his opening statement, Murthy discussed many factors addressing youth mental health challenges. “The recent ubiquity of technology platforms, especially social media platforms, has had harmful effects on many children. Though undoubtedly a benefit to our lives in important ways, these platforms have also exacerbated feelings of isolation and futility for some youth,” he stated. “They’ve reduced time for positive in-person activities, pitted kids against each other, reinforced negative behaviors like bullying and exclusion, impeded healthy habits, and undermined the safe and supportive environments kids need to thrive.”
To address these challenges, Murthy focused on four key recommendations:
- Ensuring that every child has access to high-quality, affordable, and culturally competent mental health care.
- Focusing on prevention by investing in school and community-based programs that have been shown to improve the mental health and emotional well-being of children at low cost and high benefit.
- Developing a better understanding of the impact that technology and social media has on mental health.
- Taking steps to guarantee that no child should feel ashamed of their hurt, confusion, or isolation, and no one should feel too ashamed to ask for help.
The Finance Committee has already announced that a follow-up hearing, titled “Protecting Youth Mental Health: Part II - Identifying and Addressing Barriers to Care,” will be held on Feb. 15.