From the Opioid Crisis to COVID-19: Addiction and Mental Health Providers Plea for Help

Addiction counselors and mental health workers are suffering from financial hardship across the country as the virus takes a toll on their businesses. Holding in-person and group therapy sessions is no longer an option for many providers, and many have had to lay off staff or reduce their services as a result.

These groups have received little help from the federal government. Most of the emergency coronavirus funding passed by Congress earlier this year went to hospitals and Medicaid centers, leaving mental health professionals out in the cold.

At Scrubs Mag, we recently did a story on how Medicaid clinics have received little funding amid the pandemic. Medicaid is also the largest payer of behavioral health services. It’s not clear when these clinics and providers will get additional funding, if at all, which means we could have a major mental health crisis on our hands once the pandemic lets up.

The Need for Mental Health and Crisis Counseling

Americans are very much in need of mental health services. Many people have lost loved ones or their jobs during the pandemic. Being isolated from friends and family can also lead to anxiety, depression, and even thoughts of suicide. A recent study shows that around half of Americans say the virus has taken a toll on their mental health.

Mental health professionals are worried that we could be heading for a pandemic of PTSD once the virus has been contained. The U.S. has been falling behind on mental health for years. Currently, there are just 33 licensed psychologists per 100,000 people. Southern and rural states tend to have even fewer.

Many of these facilities and crisis hotlines were created in the wake of the opioid epidemic that’s been wreaking havoc on the country for years. Now, the coronavirus is taking things even further. Calls to a federal mental health crisis hotline have increased by 1,000% during the pandemic compared to a year ago. Last month, roughly 20,000 people texted that same hotline, which is run by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Crisis counsellors and addiction providers are also worried that the pandemic will send many at-risk patients back to their old ways. If patients struggling with addiction can’t find the help they need, they may turn to drugs and alcohol as a coping method.

Mental Health Counselors Go Broke

Mental health providers have been flooded with calls and telehealth visits over the last few months, but many don’t have the staff or resources to keep up with demand.

That’s because the federal government never allocated funds directly to crisis and behavioral health centers. Congress sent billions of dollars to Medicare centers and hospitals earlier this year, but Medicaid clinics are still suffering. Some mental health providers held off applying for federal funding, hoping to secure a more generous bailout package later this year, but that hasn’t happened yet.

Roughly a third of mental health professionals and addiction counselors haven’t received any of the $175 billion Congress sent to hospitals earlier this year. In California, around 60% of behavioral health providers say they have lost staff since the beginning of the pandemic. Based on a survey of 660 providers, around half said they can only survive six months or less without financial help.

As previously reported, the Trump Administration has been focused on securing funding for Medicare programs, which serve the elderly and not the poor. Medicare typically covers just a sliver of mental health services. The administration has since adjusted the funding program to divert more money to clinics and providers that only see a small share of Medicare patients, but many are still having trouble getting money.

Centers and providers that applied for funds through the aid package that was passed earlier this year will not be eligible for future aid, which is why so many providers held off submitting their applications. Other providers were turned away for not providing enough information about their practices.

It’s not clear whether a Medicaid-specific aid package will get through Congress later this year. The White House has pushed back against calls to ramp up funding for mental health providers. A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said, “It is unclear why these providers did not take advantage of that opportunity…only to now want to seek funding.”

With a surge in demand for mental health services, fewer staff, and limited funding, many centers are having trouble keeping up with the latest news and information. The HHS website is constantly uploading new information about the program and applying for federal aid can feel like a full-time job. We all deserve access to counseling and mental health. Hopefully, the government will send these clinics more money in the near future.

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