Coalition creates a unified vision for transforming mental health and substance abuse care

Published: Mar. 1, 2021 at 5:46 PM CST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - If there’s anything we’ve learned from the pandemic, it’s the trickle down effect it’s had on so many different areas of our lives. We suddenly realize that the sacrifices we’ve made, the adjustments we are learning to live with and the loss we’ve had to endure, have had a more painful impact under the surface than those around us are able to see. Right now, there’s been a one-two punch of the COVID crisis within the mental health and substance abuse crisis that had already existed.

Across the United States, Americans have been dealing with a fragmented mental health care system long before the pandemic. Suddenly, mental health has become everyone’s problem. Founder of the Kennedy Forum and former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy writes that just as our anemic public healthcare system left us unprepared for the pandemic, the U.S. was even less prepared for a mental health crisis that’s now afflicting half of all Americans. This crisis is compounded by death, financial loss, job loss and stress. Depression has jumped three-fold, overdose deaths have increased dramatically in 40 states, and the CDC reports that 25% of young adults struggle with thoughts of suicide. If problems aren’t addressed now, they may fester and get worse as time goes on.

Kennedy and the president and CEO of Mental Health America, Paul Gionfriddo, joined NewsChannel 7 at 4′s Deep Bench on Monday for an in depth look at the mental health and substance use crisis Americans face. Kennedy, who triumphed in his personal battle with substance abuse, and Gionfriddo, whose adult son recently died as a consequence of serious mental illness, have devoted their lives to solving this crisis and are uniquely qualified as advocates.

Their two organizations are among the 14 top mental health organizations to join together to engage federal and state officials in all 50 states to prioritize a response to the nation’s escalating mental health crisis. The leadership coalition is also composed of CEOs from the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health, Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute, , the National Association for Behavioral Healthcare, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the National Council for Behavioral Health, One Mind, Peg’s Foundation, the Steinberg Institute, the Treatment Advocacy Center and Well Being Trust.

In a joint statement, the leadership coalition said: “The mental health crisis that has evolved along with the COVID pandemic is unprecedented. The levies have broken on an overwhelmed system of care and state leadership must move to address mental health care as an integral aspect of their pandemic response. As leaders in mental health care, we offer a viable roadmap for immediate and long-term changes that will lead to a mental health care system capable of saving our nation.”

The leadership coalition’s plan – titled A Unified Vision for Transforming Mental Health and Substance Abuse Care – calls for policy, programs and standards that prioritize mental health care and address the social and economic conditions – including racism and discrimination – that disproportionately impact people of color and the poor, and result in inadequate and inequitable access to effective, humane treatment.

The CEO coalition was established in early 2020, and the group began meeting in emergency sessions weekly at the onset of the pandemic, which has greatly exacerbated the fault lines in an already fractured mental health system and heightened mental health issues across our nation – including anxiety, depression, isolation, addiction, domestic abuse, and suicide. By proposing “shovel-ready” solutions, the group is looking to harness public-private partnerships and inspire systemic change.

“Mental health needs to be a priority of everyone, particularly now in the context of COVID-19 and everything that has gone on this year,” said Daniel H. Gillison, Jr., CEO of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “It requires immediate action by the new administration, as well as state and local governments in all 50 states, and an acknowledged, consistent commitment to fix what’s broken in our system of care.”

The group created a detailed strategic plan to stem the current crisis and secure the future. The strategic plan offers tried-and-tested “pathways for success” across seven critical policy areas identified as:

1. Early identification and prevention, especially for families and young people;

2. Rapid deployment of emergency crisis response and suicide prevention;

3. Leveling inequities in access to care;

4. Establishing integrated health and mental health care to ensure “whole-person”


5. Achieving parity in payment by health plans for mental health and substance-use


6. Assuring evidence-based standards of treatments and care; and,

7. Engaging a diverse mental health care workforce, peer support and community-based programs.

Included in the vision is a detailed proposal for how the new Administration, Congress, governors and state and local lawmakers must work in tandem with the business community and the non-profit sector to promote systemic changes in the mental health care system.

Among the seven suggestions are a number of ideas that can be implemented quickly, such as, embracing telehealth, and implementing strategic shifts to early intervention that can help provide relief by bringing telehealth outside of a clinical settingand into schools, community centers, prisons; fast-tracking new emergency response systems, such as the new “988” National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, for immediate access on mobile carriers, engaging a diverse mental health care workforce, providing additional support means by expanding access to peer support groups and community based programs.

“We need bold steps from our government and the business community alike,” said Kennedy. “Just as a number of talented infectious disease experts are guiding the country’s medical response to COVID-19, it is imperative that mental health experts be given the opportunity to guide our nation’s mental health recovery efforts. We encourage all state governments to engage with mental health leaders, bring them into pandemic-related responses, and actively facilitate their communication with communities across the country.”

“We call on the new administration to appoint leaders who understand the urgency and who will advocate for resources commensurate with the need,” said Danna Mauch, Massachusetts Association for Mental Health President and CEO. “The lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic is not simply about our lack of preparedness. It is also about our resourcefulness as a society to mobilize public-private partnerships in response to public health emergencies, including the behavioral health crisis in America.”

“Every person living with mental illness or substance use disorder deserves prevention, early intervention, treatment, and recovery services just like any medical illness,” said American Psychiatric Association CEO and Medical Director Saul Levin, M.D., M.P.A. “The document creates a roadmap for both the federal government and the states, as well as the public and private sectors, to ensure parity for mental health and substance use services.”

“Everyone acknowledges that there is a problem,” said Arthur C. Evans Jr., CEO, American Psychological Association. “What distinguishes our plan is that we offer specific, workable priorities and solutions for meeting current needs for millions of Americans and transforming the system of care for the future. We welcome the opportunity to work with local and state leaders and to provide many more details on our plan.”

Learn more at

Copyright 2021 WSAW. All rights reserved.