WASHINGTON — Increasing access to telehealth services, which many have come to rely upon during the pandemic, provided a point of agreement between lawmakers in a Tuesday hearing to address the national mental health crisis.

“Too long Americans have shied away from conversations about mental health, contributing to the deeply held, stagnant stigma about seeking care,” said Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee. “While we’ve made great strides in recognizing the importance of caring for our mental health as a society, it’s appropriate for Congress to act.”

The Massachusetts Democrat noted that the hearing was the first the committee has held in over 10 years to address mental health. The rate of adults who reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder rose from one in 10 adults to one in four adults during the pandemic, Neal added.

Ranking member Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said telehealth services would particularly benefit seniors and veterans: the number of Veterans Affairs telehealth appointments increased 18-fold in the past year, he said.

“We don’t have a mental health system in America,” he added, “but with telehealth we have an opportunity to really create access to affordable and high-quality mental health.”

Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) cited the Telehealth Extension Act, which he introduced in December, as a pathway to keeping telehealth services available after the pandemic. 

In a hearing on mental health Monday, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) also urged lawmakers to take action on legislation solidifying telemental health access.

“Moving forward with a markup on this bipartisan bill is one constructive step that our committee can take to improve mental health access,” Doggett said.

Making telehealth a permanent fixture of healthcare should be a federal priority, said Deepa Avula, who oversees mental health and substance abuse services at the North Carolina Department of Health & Human Services.

“Truly, telehealth saved our system (during the pandemic) and it would be hard to go back,” Avula said, adding: “We are at a very unique moment in time. I think all of us need to recognize it is a sad moment, but it’s a moment of great opportunity.”

Racial inequities as barrier

Democrat Rep. Terri Sewell noted her home district in Alabama, whose Black residents represent over 60% of the population, has been disproportionately at-risk for mental health and substance abuse disorders.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has really laid bare the systemic disinvestments that have been made in mental health and substance abuse,” Sewell said. “Increasingly, I think that we have seen that race does have a factor and does play a role in mental health.”

Expanding and training the mental health workforce is crucial, especially in these underserved communities, said Wizdom Powell, director of the Health Disparities Institute. Mental health services also currently fail to recognize racism as a viable source of trauma, she added.

Powell cited a personal experience seeking emergency mental health support for her niece during the pandemic. 

During a period of “intense tension between law enforcement and communities of color,” Powell’s family found that their only option for rapid support was to call a police officer onto the scene.

“There were no adequate systems in place for her,” Powell said. “Despite the compassion and warmth of the arriving officer, he has limited formal mental health training and interpreted her symptoms through a law-and-order lens because that’s what his training told him to do.”