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After a difficult year, here are five things Minnesota’s congressional delegation is doing to improve support for Americans’ mental health

From the deaths to the isolation to the disruption of routine, the pandemic took a toll on the mental health of many.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar
REUTERS/Hannah McKay
Sen. Amy Klobuchar: “As a former prosecutor, I’ve seen firsthand how the justice system can fail people struggling with mental illness.”
The pandemic has taken a toll on Minnesotans’ mental health. During the last year Minnesota has seen more than 7,000 deaths from COVID-19. Lonely quarantining and disruption from normal routines caused new or worsening anxiety for many. Minnesota student learning also suffered during the pandemic as most students learned remotely for the first time.

“Especially with the pandemic and the isolation so many have felt over the last 15 months, it’s critical that we continue working to break down the barriers around access to care and make the investments necessary to ensure people have the mental health resources they need,” said Rep. Betty McCollum, who during her time in Congress has advocated for action on mental health.

May is Mental Health Awareness month — here are five things Minnesota members of Congress are doing that seek to provide better support for Americans’ mental health.

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Mental health in the justice system

All of Minnesota’s Democratic representatives are cosponsoring the Mental Health Justice Act of 2021. This bill would create a grant program for states and local governments “to train and dispatch mental health professionals to respond, instead of law enforcement officers, to emergencies that involve people with behavioral health needs.”

It would also ensure that grant recipients receive technical assistance from experts through the Disability Rights Section of the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice and from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

The Mental Health Justice Act comes partly in response to an estimated one in four fatal police encounters in the U.S. that involve someone with a severe mental illness, making the risk of death 16 times greater for them than for others approached or stopped by law enforcement.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar is one of two cosponsors on the Senate version of this bill, which was introduced in March but has not made it to the Senate floor or to discussion in any committees.

“As a former prosecutor, I’ve seen firsthand how the justice system can fail people struggling with mental illness,” Klobuchar said. “We need to ensure people have access to the support they need, especially in moments of crisis when emergency responders are called. By dispatching mental health professionals via 911 in situations where a person is experiencing a mental health crisis, this legislation will help keep some of the most vulnerable members of our community safe.”

Addressing stress in farm country

Farming is a high-stress occupation, but it’s also an essential part of Minnesota culture and economy. In a bipartisan letter, led by Rep. Tom Emmer and signed by Reps. Pete Stauber, Michelle Fischbach and Angie Craig, lawmakers urged the House Appropriations Committee to fully fund the Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network (FRSAN) for fiscal year 2022. FRSAN connects people in the farming and ranching industries to behavioral health counseling and resources like stress assistance hotlines and training workshops.

Rep. Tom Emmer
Rep. Tom Emmer
The letter listed financial risk, volatile markets, unpredictable weather and heavy workloads as factors that can strain farmers’ and ranch workers’ mental health. The letter also stressed that the COVID-19 pandemic both triggered a new type of crisis for the farming sector and came at a time that was already difficult for farmers.

While farmers in Minnesota and beyond may see a slight improvement in income in 2021, they still face years of increasing debt levels and low farm incomes, according to the letter. The requested funding for FRSAN will be “critically important in meeting the needs of farmers and ranchers as they endure increasing financial and mental stress.”

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Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said she supports the aims of Emmer’s letter but did not sign it so as to “not effectively send letters to herself.”

Supporting and replenishing mental health professionals

Sen. Tina Smith shared her personal story about mental health with Duluth’s KBJR, describing how she hit a wall with her depression in college and was encouraged by her friends to seek out a therapist.

“When it started for me, I thought I was just having a bad day or really a series of bad days,” said Smith during a congressional speech in 2019. Her depression relapsed later in life, where she said she felt she was struggling both as a mom and at work.

Sen. Tina Smith
MinnPost file photo by Briana Bierschbach
Sen. Tina Smith
“The things that used to bring you joy, don’t give you joy anymore,” she told KBJR. “The things that you used to love to do, they just make you exhausted.”

Now, along with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Smith is working on the Mental Health Professionals Workforce Shortage Loan Repayment Act, a bill that aims to recruit more people to work in the mental health field. The legislation would repay up to $250,000 in eligible student loan debt for mental health professionals who work in underserved areas, as well as one-sixth of the individual’s eligible loans for each year of service.

Smith and Murkowski emphasized that a shortage of mental health professionals is more urgent in rural communities than in urban areas, and that people of color are also more likely to live in areas with shortages. People of color are also more likely to report challenges to accessing culturally competent care. They hope to address those inequities with this bill.

“I’ve shared my own story with depression because I want anyone suffering from a mental health issue to know they are not alone. We can all help break the stigma around talking about this, but de-stigmatizing and de-mystifying mental illness is just the beginning. We have to make sure mental health resources are available to everyone,” Smith said. “We need to pass our bipartisan bill to help close the holes in the net we build to catch people when they fall and need help.”

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Supporting school-based mental health services

In the House, Craig and McCollum are cosponsors of the Mental Health Services for Students Act of 2021, which provides statutory authority for Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education) State Educational Agency Grant Program. The program supports school-based mental health services, including screening, treatment and outreach programs.

The act would provide $200 million in grants of up to $2 million each, and expand the scope of Project AWARE by providing on-site licensed mental health professionals in schools.

The bill passed in the House Wednesday, and was received in the Senate Thursday. Senators referred the bill to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, where it will be discussed before possibly being considered for a vote by the Senate.

Addressing mental health disparities for Black youth

Rep. Ilhan Omar and McCollum are cosponsors of the Pursuing Equity in Mental Health Act, which aims to combat disparities in mental health access and treatment for Black youth. The bill authorizes $805 million in funding to support research, improve access to culturally competent providers, build outreach programs to reduce stigma, and develop a training program for providers to manage disparities. Mental Health America, a nonprofit that addresses the needs of those with mental illness, found that Black people in America have disproportionately inadequate access to mental health care.

Rep. Ilhan Omar
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Rep. Ilhan Omar
The bill, if passed, would also reauthorize a minority fellowship program through SAMHSA that awards funding to organizations supporting development and increasing the number of culturally competent behavioral health practitioners. This would allocate $25 million in federal funds for the program each fiscal year. The legislation would also establish a federally funded working group to conduct a study on mental health disparities in racial and ethnic minority groups, and report the findings to Congress.

This bill passed in the House Wednesday, and after being received in the Senate on Thursday, it was referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions of which Smith is a member.

“One of the ways we as a society can take immediate action is to work together with our friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers to end the stigma around mental health, “ McCollum said. “This is an area that deserves our attention and focus not just during Mental Health Awareness Month, but all the time.”