The Senate resumed this week and will be in session from July 20 to August 7, overlapping with the House session until July 31. Congress has until then to agree on a stimulus bill to have that relief signed into law by President Trump before September.
The HEROES Act, a COVID-19 relief bill, passed the House in May and contains $3 billion worth in funding for mental and behavioral health. The Senate has not passed the bill.
More than half of U.S. adults report worry or stress related to the pandemic cause them to experience at least one negative effect on their mental health, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Both locally and nationally, calls to helplines for mental health have been increasing.
The Disaster Distress Helpline operated by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) saw an 891 percent increase in call volume this March in comparison with March 2019, according to ABC.
Crisis Services also reported an increase in hotline calls.
In addition to the over 140,000 American lives lost to COVID-19, the new report Projected Deaths of Despair from COVID-19 suggests thousands of additional lives can be lost due to drugs, alcohol, and suicide because of the pandemic at the highest end of the prediction model.
Despite an increase in need for mental health care during the COVID-19 pandemic, municipalities and non-government organizations are postponing funding.
In 2019, Erie County had a confirmed 156 deaths due to opioid overdoses and an additional 50 overdose deaths that were non-opioid related, said Gale Burstein, Erie County commissioner of health.
As of June 11, there were 33 confirmed opioid related overdose deaths in the county, 10 confirmed non-opioid related overdose deaths and 100 suspected overdose deaths that still need to be confirmed, according to Burstein.
The increase in fentanyl in the drugs like cocaine, coupled with isolation and financial stressors of the pandemic are likely to be the reason behind the increase, Burstein said.
Evergreen Health operates a needle exchange in both Jamestown and Buffalo, and provides free fentanyl testing strips through their harm reduction program.
“I can tell you anecdotally from the medical examiner’s office — they’ve said they’ve never been busier,” Burstein said. “It’s not just overdoses; they’re seeing a lot of homicides, a lot of suicides.”
From January to June of this year, Erie County lost 43 people to (confirmed) death by suicides, in the same timeframe in 2019, the county lost 39 people to death by suicide.
Suicide is preventable, if you are in crisis, call Crisis Services 24/7 hotline at 716-834-3131 or visit their website for more information.
Several additional pieces of legislation have been introduced to Congress regarding mental health funding at the federal, state, and county level.
Bills like H.R.6645, which would support mental health research related to COVID-19, and H.R. 7080, which would allow the Secretary of Health and Human Services to award grants to states, tribes, community-based organizations, health care organizations and more to address any behavioral health needs related to COVID-19, were both introduced to the House.
But without the funding from many of the legislative bills, many local municipalities are putting their plans for addressing the behavioral and mental health aspects of this pandemic on hold.
Due to limited funding because of the COVID-19 budget restraints, the Erie County legislature hasn’t taken as much action on mental health initiatives, said Jessica A. Schuster, the Erie County Legislature deputy communications director.
For a look at local mental and behavioral health resources, click here.