President Donald Trump blamed state and local shutdown orders for worsening behavioral health during the COVID-19 pandemic, directing his administration to support enhanced crisis-intervention and other behavioral health services.
According to an executive order on Monday, the Trump administration wants to encourage in-person mentorship programs, support groups and communal activities like school. It also wants to increase the availability of telehealth and online behavior health tools and services. Trump asked his administration to "marshal public and private resources to address deteriorating mental health, such as factors that contribute to prolonged unemployment and social isolation."
"It is the policy of the United States to prevent suicides, drug-related deaths, and poor behavioral-health outcomes, particularly those that are induced or made worse by prolonged state and local COVID-19 shutdown orders," the order said.
There is substantial evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened behavioral health issues like depression and substance abuse. Experts say delivering more behavioral health services through telehealth could help, even if the quality of those services is lower than in-person services. People with behavioral health issues could also benefit from in-person, community-based services held outdoors so long as everyone follows federal distancing guidelines like mask-wearing.
Most experts say prolonged state and local shutdown orders are in response to the enduring public health crisis, and that the shutdown orders should end after the U.S. has the virus under control. According to the COVID Tracking Project, nationwide coronavirus cases have been on the rise since mid-September.
The executive order sets up a working group to improve the federal government's response to mental health issues created or worsened by the pandemic. HHS Secretary Alex Azar and Brooke Rollins, acting assistant to the president for domestic policy, will co-chair the working group. It will include representatives from other federal departments, agencies and offices. The working group will examine existing policies and evidence-based programs to support at-risk groups, including small business owners.
The working group must develop and submit a report within 45 days that describes how the administration will improve behavioral health services coordination between all stakeholders and agencies.
The executive order also asks agency leaders to look into how to use their existing behavioral health-related grant programs to encourage grantees to improve mental health and reduce suicide risk through in-person supports, communal activities and telehealth.