National Association of Social Workers (NASW) CEO Angelo McClain yesterday participated on a conference call with President Trump, Vice President Pence and key Trump Administration officials for a discussion on the mental health implications of the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19)pandemic. The meeting was an opportunity for the Administration to hear directly from the mental health community as the nation confronts the Coronavirus. Mental health leaders discussed the vital importance of mental health services during the pandemic to address issues of trauma and loss, grief and depression, mental health and substance use disorders.
President Trump and Vice President Pence acknowledged the importance of mental health during the pandemic and assured the group that mental health was an Administration priority. Vice President Pence offered his appreciation for the work of the mental health community, stating: “you and your colleagues are making a real difference in helping our nation respond to the coronavirus crisis, your efforts will help sustain our nation’s emotional wholeness.”
Discussion included impact of Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES Act)
Mental health leaders thanked the Administration for the relief made available through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES Act), including $425 million in funding for mental health services, and the regulatory flexibility that increases access to telehealth. The urgent need to do more to enable the mental health community to effectively respond to the nation’s mental health needs during the pandemic was emphasized.
Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar and HHS Assistant Secretary Elanor McCance-Katz summarized the steps that HHS, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) are taking to enable the mental health community to continue providing services during the COVID-19 pandemic. SAMHSA has announced $110 million in funding grants to the States to improvement mental health services for clients, provide needed support and services to care providers, and for maintaining 24/7 crisis lines.
Mental health leaders expressed the importance of crisis access to mental health services, continued effort to address opioid misuse during the pandemic with emphasis on the importance of medication assisted treatment (MAT), supportive services, the use of mid-level professionals, and the importance of telehealth in rural areas. Both Secretary Azar and Assistant Secretary Katz reiterated the Administration’s commitment to mental health and committed SAMHSA to conveying the concerns of mental health leaders in its weekly calls with State Medicaid Directors.
Veteran Affairs (VA) Secretary Robert Wilke expressed his excitement to participate in a national discussion to change the culture around mental health and take action to improve the mental health system. He discussed innovations underway at the VA, including: being the 1st national health system to offer same day mental health service; expanding the VA’s reach into the community through offering telehealth clinics at Walmart stores; and expanded use of telehealth across the VA, (for instance, in March the VA conducted 2,700 group therapy telehealth sessions and 154,000 mental health telehealth sessions). The VA has also expanded the use of art therapy, music therapy, and acupuncture.
Some worry pandemic could hurt progress in ending opioid addiction crisis
There was concern expressed that the coronavirus pandemic could derail progress made addressing the opioid crisis. Assistant Secretary McCance-Katz, the Administration’s top mental health official, is spending a lot of time making sure we don’t lose ground. Mental health leaders emphasized that progress is in jeopardy as social distancing rules and fears of the virus hamper traditional treatment efforts, including syringe exchange programs, peer counseling and medication-assisted treatment. Parenthetically, Secretary Wilke reported that opioid prescriptions at the VA are down by 50 percent.
During the meeting, Trump announced the appointment of Second Lady Karen Pence as the lead ambassador for the PREVENTS Initiative, to prevent veteran deaths by suicide. Second Lady Pence expressed her honor to serve in this role and introduced PREVENTS #MoreThanEverBefore, which offers an invitation for people to share how they are really doing with people they care about and trust through Facebook. During development of the President’s PREVENTS Roadmap, NASW provided several recommendations that were incorporated into the Roadmap. We will continue to play an important role as the Roadmap to reduce suicide among veterans, service members and their families is implemented.
First Lady Melania Trump expressed her gratitude for the work of the mental health community and her admiration for mental health providers’ work to address anxiety, depression and job loss during these tough times. Brett Favre joined the call and expressed his appreciation of the mental health community.
NASW will continue advocating for social workers and the people they serve throughout the Coronavirus pandemic.
For more information on NASW’s response to the Coronavirus epidemic and resources to support social workers during the pandemic visit our online toolkit.