By Jacqueline Howard
US lawmakers are calling for research into the coronavirus pandemic's impact on mental health.
Democratic senators Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Tim Kaine of Virginia exclusively told CNN that they plan to introduce the Covid-19 Mental Health Research Act on Tuesday afternoon. The legislation would direct $100 million annually for five years to the National Institute of Mental Health to fund research on the mental health consequences of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, Democratic Rep. Paul Tonko and Republican Rep. John Katko, both of New York, will introduce the House version of the legislation, according to Klobuchar's office.
"Health care workers have led our communities through this crisis, with many feeling acute stress and anxiety," Klobuchar said in a statement to CNN.
"Children, adolescents, and seniors have also been uniquely impacted. To understand how we can best support them -- and all Americans -- through this difficult time, we must assess the scope of this mental health crisis and take steps to promote recovery and healing," she said.
The proposed bill would provide support to research that examines the pandemic's toll on mental health, especially for health care workers. Other funding would support post-pandemic mental health response and suicide prevention.
"This bipartisan, bicameral bill will fund targeted research to strengthen our nation's mental health response and examine the toll of this pandemic on frontline healthcare workers," Katko said in a statement. "The bill will also provide crucial funding for suicide prevention research and assess the long-term impacts of COVID-19 stressors on mental health."
Once introduced, the lawmakers will wait to see how their proposed legislation will be received in the House and Senate.
Tonko said that focusing on mental health will be part of "rebuilding America" after the pandemic, especially for medical professionals and emergency responders.
"Every day they show up to work, they risk exposure to this deadly virus and shoulder an unimaginable emotional burden for us, all to keep our families and communities safe. We need to do more to support them and make sure we work to understand even the hidden costs they are bearing," he said, adding that he urges his colleagues in the House and Senate to push the legislation forward.
Companion legislation, the Coronavirus Mental Health and Addiction Assistance Act, was introduced earlier this year to the House and Senate that would award grants to places offering mental health and addiction services, as well as authorize $100 million to initiate or expand such programs.
One study, published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry in February, found that emergency department visits related to mental health, suicide attempts, overdoses, intimate partner violence and suspected child abuse were generally higher during the pandemic last year than during the same period the year before.
The study, from researchers at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, looked at the number of emergency department visits from December 30, 2018, to October 10, 2020, comparing the corresponding weeks in each year.
There were nearly 190 million emergency department visits during the entire study period, and more than 6 million involved mental health, substance abuse or domestic violence. The researchers found emergency department visits related to mental health conditions, suicide attempts, drug and opioid overdoses and suspected child abuse and neglect were significantly higher from mid-March to October 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.
Unique challenges for children
Youth suicides had generally been rising before the pandemic and it is too early to link an increase in deaths directly to school closures, Katrina Rufino, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Houston, told CNN in January.
Nationally, the proportion of emergency room visits related to mental health doubled between April and October for children between the ages of 5 and 11, and tripled for those between the ages of 12 and 17, compared to the same period in 2019, according to the CDC.
Rufino co-authored a study that found there had been a significant increase in the number of ER visits to a Houston children's hospital related to mental health since coronavirus hit the US.
In Houston, the rise in teenagers having suicidal thoughts and harming themselves coincided with shutdowns linked to the pandemic, including school closures, Rufino and colleagues wrote in the paper published in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
"Our analysis found that there were significantly higher rates of suicide ideation in March and July 2020 -- that is when you really saw the effects here in Houston," said Rufino about the study, which examined ER admittance to Texas Children's Hospital for youth aged 11 to 21.
"March was when things were first hitting, things started shutting down. Here in Houston, we had the rodeo closed, schools went home after Spring Break. And then July is when we really started to see our surge here in Houston."