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American Rescue Plan Act offers City opportunity to meet critical behavioral health needs

April 2, 2021 Category: FeaturedMediumPurpose


This guest column was written by Joe Pyle, president of the Thomas Scattergood Behavioral Health Foundation, and Kate Williams, board chair of the Scattergood Foundation and founder of Philanthropy Partner LLC.
The American Rescue Plan Act presents a tremendous opportunity to improve behavioral health for all Americans.

Being touted as one of the most progressive pieces of legislation in decades; its $1.9 trillion in funding has the potential to not only cope with the Coronavirus pandemic, but to move toward recovery and growth. How can this funding create the kind of disruption that is needed to build stronger, more effective, compassionate, and inclusive systems where behavioral health is central?

The mental health and substance use impacts of COVID-19 have been crushing. Between the grief associated with the public health crisis itself, increased unemployment, food and housing insecurity, social isolation, and juggling work and childcare responsibilities, it’s no wonder that almost 8 in 10 adults say that the pandemic is a significant source of stress in their life. Such stressors can lead to increased mental health disorders.

The number of adults experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression jumped from 1 in 10 in 2019 to 4 in 10 in January 2021. Mental health professionals are concerned about increased suicidal ideation as well, especially among young adults, racial and ethnic minority groups, unpaid caregivers, and essential workers.

Many Americans are relying on drugs and alcohol to cope with the stressors they’re facing, with roughly 13% reporting increased substance use. What’s more, the number of overdose deaths have increased. In the 12-month period ending in May 2020, the US saw more than 81,000 overdose deaths, 18% more than the previous 12-month period and the highest number of drug overdose deaths ever recorded.

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Children and adolescents have also experienced declining mental health over the course of the pandemic. From March through October of last year, the rate of mental health-related ER visits among children ages 5-11 rose 24% from the previous year and 31% among adolescents aged 12-17.

Such stark increases in adverse behavioral health indicators strain our already inadequate systems. The human costs are immeasurable and the economic costs are significant. According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, untreated mental illness costs the US roughly $300 billion a year, and almost half of Medicaid dollars are spent on people with mental health or substance use conditions.

As we look toward recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, we must meet these complex challenges with significant resources.

The American Rescue Plan includes critical provisions to alleviate the stressors that American have been facing.

Signed into law on March 11, the American Rescue Plan includes critical provisions to alleviate the stressors that American have been facing — unemployment benefits, stimulus payments, rental assistance, and much-needed funding to improve public health measures to stop the spread of and death from this virus. It will also improve access to behavioral health care through improvements to the Affordable Care Act, increased Medicaid funding, and block grants to support mental health and addiction programs. Further, the legislation includes funding that can improve lives well-beyond the pandemic. The expansion of the Child Tax Credit represents the potential to cut childhood poverty in half.

In Philadelphia, the Mayor and City Council could breathe a huge sigh of relief with the news that $1.4 billion was headed our way. After significant revenue losses due to the pandemic and the depletion of the City’s financial reserves last year, this influx in cash is a welcome reprieve. Not only will it plug the $450 million hole in the City’s budget for this year, it can give the City some flexibility to rebuild.

The School District of Philadelphia will also receive an additional $1.3 billion, SEPTA could stand to gain $650 million, and small businesses will likely benefit from expanding programs like the Paycheck Protection Program. While it is undoubtedly comforting that resources are on the way, the question remains — how exactly will those dollars be spent?

The most impactful strategies will require collaboration and transparency.

Addressing the behavioral health needs of Philadelphians necessitates a public health approach that includes a full spectrum of supports from health promotion and prevention to treatment. After all, mental health and addiction do not exist in a vacuum — they are impacted by a wide range of social and economic factors. The most impactful strategies will require collaboration and transparency. Systems must account for the deep racial and economic inequities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic and develop solutions that center those who have been marginalized and oppressed.

As leaders across sectors develop their plans to put these dollars to effective use, ensuring the behavioral health needs of all Philadelphians are front and center is critical to our city’s recovery and growth.

We call on government, civic, and business leaders to think differently about how their resources impact mental health and substance use. It is critical that they work collectively and in partnership with communities to shift the paradigm and recognize the unique spark and basic dignity in every human.

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