We are only five months into 2020, but it is safe to say the coronavirus crisis has made this year unlike any other in our lifetimes.
A virus the world had never seen before has taken thousands of American lives. Millions more have lost their jobs as a result of the economic shutdown. Our daily routines and opportunities to gather with friends and family were drastically constrained by social distancing orders.
The dramatic lifestyle changes brought on by the coronavirus caused or exacerbated mental and emotional hardships for nearly every American. Fear, anger, nervousness—all understandable reactions to an unknown enemy—began to seep into daily thoughts. For many, physical distancing and economic uncertainty generated increased feelings of isolation, disconnection and confinement, in addition to raising questions about their value. This anxiety, coupled with concerns for our own safety and that of our loved ones, certainly caused harm to the mental wellbeing of numerous Americans.
As Arkansas cautiously begins to reopen, many of these emotions linger—but for some, grappling with mental health struggles has been, and will be, a lifelong battle.
As he has in previous years, President Trump has declared the month of May to be National Mental Health Awareness Month. As the president noted in his proclamation, this year’s designation “coincides with one of the most complex and challenging periods in our nation’s recent history.” Given the gravity of the situation, Congress included $425 million for substance use treatment and mental health services in the Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
Additional language within the CARES Act directs resources to vulnerable populations, including veterans, who are at higher risk of suffering from mental health issues. The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is using these resources to expand its telehealth capabilities. This technology ensures continuity of care for veterans during a time when non-emergency visits are not an option. The VA also unveiled a new campaign called “Now is the Time” to highlight mental health resources available to veterans and their families.
My colleagues and I continue to pursue additional treatment options for veterans. The Commander John Scott Hannon Veterans Mental Health Care Improvement Act of 2019—a comprehensive bill to expand veterans’ access to services received unanimous approval from the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee. It is my hope that we can get this bill—which includes language I authored with Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) to increase veteran-serving non-profits’ participation in efforts to reduce veteran suicides—through the full Senate in a similarly quick manner.
I also recently joined colleagues to introduce legislation to improve services for another vulnerable, and often overlooked, group—children in foster care. The trauma and challenges that children face before entering the foster care system, and throughout their time in it, put them at high risk of mental health struggles. Our bill, the Timely Mental Health for Foster Youth Act, will help identify the unique needs of the 400,000-plus children in foster care and put them on a path that improves their lives and mental wellbeing.
We are living in an unprecedented time. These past few months have been a stark reminder that we need to look out for one another. Let’s use National Mental Health Month to recommit to our own mental wellness and that of our families, friends and neighbors.