Congress pressed to invest more in mental health

The chief science officer of the American Psychological Association urged a Senate panel to put more money in expanding the mental healthcare workforce.

Hospitals are seeing more patients who have attempted suicide, and the American Psychological Association is pressing Congress to develop a bigger and more diverse workforce of mental health professionals.

Mitch Prinstein, chief science officer of the American Psychological Association, testified before a Senate panel last week and urged Congress to invest more in mental health.

America had neglected mental health issues before the arrival of COVID-19, but Prinstein said the pandemic has created greater mental health needs than ever. During the pandemic, about four out of 10 adults have reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, up from about one in 10 adults in early 2019.

At the Feb. 1 hearing, Prinstein said the country is at a historic moment in dealing with mental health issues. He likened this moment to the years following World War II, when the government formed the Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Institute of Mental Health.

It’s time to give mental health much more attention, he said.

“Our country invests $15 billion annually to ensure we have enough physical healthcare providers with the appropriate specialties and spread throughout the country,” Prinstein said. “Yet we invest less than 1% of that amount to build a mental healthcare workforce.”

While Medicare reimburses medical residents, there are no reimbursements for those pursuing graduate degrees in psychology, and that needs to change, Prinstein noted.

The pandemic has added pressures, but Prinstein said the federal government hasn’t placed nearly enough emphasis on training mental healthcare professionals.

“To say this is a mental health crisis is not enough,” Prinstein said. “This is an accumulation of decades of neglect, stigma, and unequal treatment of mental health compared to physical health.”

In his written testimony to the Senate Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, Prinstein outlined some sobering statistics on the pandemic’s toll on mental health.

During the first three quarters of 2021, children’s hospitals reported a 14% increase in emergencies related to mental health and a 42% increase in cases of suicide and self-injury, compared to the same period in 2019. More than 100,000 died from overdoses between April 2020 and April 2021, a 28% increase over the previous year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The APA is urging Congress to reauthorize and expand the Graduate Psychology Education and Minority Fellowship programs. The APA is also asking Congress to invest an additional $1 billion in youth mental health research.

The association is also asking Congress to approve the Mental Health Professionals Workforce Shortage Loan Repayment Act, a bill (S. 1578) that would form a new student loan repayment program for those who commit to working in underserved areas.

Doctoral psychologists graduate with an average student debt load of between $95,000 and $160,000 from their graduate degrees alone, Prinstein noted in his written testimony.

The high debt serves as a barrier for some from minority groups, and the mental health workforce sorely needs more diversity, Prinstein stated in his report to the panel. Students with lower incomes and students from minority groups pursuing doctoral degrees in psychology disproportionately rely on student loans, he wrote.

In his remarks to the panel, Prinstein said it no longer makes sense to have a division between physical health and mental health.

“It’s time to create a mental health system that reflects the 21st century and we have no time to waste,” Prinstein said.

Only 1 in 7 Americans with mental health needs are receiving treatment scientifically proven to work, he said.

“There are simply not enough mental healthcare providers, there’s not enough investment in science, to use what we know to prevent mental illness,” Prinstein told the panel.

“We need to expand primary and behavioral healthcare because it works,” he added.