WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senators Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), a senior member of the Senate Finance Committee that sets national health policy, Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) led a group of Senate colleagues in introducing the Mental Health Equity Act of 2020 to address the issues of suicide and mental health in youth with a focus on those in socially and economically disadvantaged communities. July is Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. The legislation is cosponsored by Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Michael Bennett (D-Colo.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.),Tom Carper (D-Del.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.).

The Mental Health Equity Act of 2020 expands minority mental health access by supporting scientific research and increasing funding for existing federal programs. This legislation also provides grant funding over a period of five years to establish inter-professional health care teams at community health centers, rural health clinics, and behavioral health programs that predominantly serve people of color, and to establish various health profession competencies to address racial and ethnic minority mental health disparities.

“If we fundamentally believe that today’s youth are the future of America, then unmet mental health challenges, especially in minority communities, are putting that future at risk,” said Sen. Menendez. “The Mental Health Equity Act of 2020 not only tackles the issue of mental health and suicide, but also the long-standing disparities that exist regarding mental health access for minorities that have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our bill makes this issue a top priority in our public health agencies by expanding culturally competent mental health services to all communities, and increasing funding for research and other federal programs.  It is my sincere hope that more of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle join us in this effort to restore racial equity in our mental health care system.” 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has both exposed and exacerbated the deep-seated disparities that Black and Brown communities face in access and outcomes related to all types of health care, including mental health care,” said Sen. Booker. “As we work to address and dismantle structural racial inequities in our health care system, we must prioritize expanding access to mental health care and services. The Mental Health Equity Act is an important step forward to ensuring that quality, affordable mental health care is accessible in and to every community.”

“The coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating long-standing disparities in mental health access for young Nevadans of color. I’m proud to introduce legislation to help level the playing field by providing over $800 million in funding for culturally competent mental health services for Nevada’s vulnerable populations,” said Sen. Cortez Masto. “By supporting programs that are dismantling structural barriers to accessing mental health treatment and prioritizing the expansion of behavioral health care in communities of color, this bill will help Nevada’s social and economically disadvantaged youth stay healthy and reach their full potential.”

“Communities of color have faced systemic barriers for generations and COVID-19 has only amplified economic and health care disparities. This bill will increase access to high quality behavioral health services to meet the needs of communities of color,” said Sen. Stabenow.

“For far too long, minority communities have struggled with a lack of access to mental health services,” said Sen. Rosen. “Now, the coronavirus pandemic is pushing our nation toward a mental health crisis that is already disproportionately affecting young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. We must put an end to these long-standing health care disparities. I’m proud to co-sponsor The Mental Health Equity Act of 2020, legislation that will tackle this issue at its root and work to expand mental health access in minority communities. I will continue working to ensure all people in Nevada and across the nation have access to the care and treatment they need.”

“As elected officials, we have a responsibility and, I believe, a moral obligation to ensure that all Americans living with a mental illness have access to high-quality, affordable treatment when they need it, regardless of their race, socioeconomic status or zip code. These services are more critical than ever during an unprecedented pandemic that has aggravated long-standing health disparities that persist for communities of color,” said Sen. Carper. “I am proud to join my colleagues, including Senators Menendez, Booker and Cortez Masto, to introduce the Mental Health Equity Act of 2020 that will expand access to potentially life-saving treatments and care in disadvantaged communities that are too often overlooked. This legislation will also help to support the incredible work done at our Federally Qualified Health Centers in Delaware – Westside, La Red and Henrietta Johnson – and continue to ensure that care is readily available for all who need it when they need it.”

“This critical legislation brings us closer to achieving mental health justice for all Americans,” said Sen. Blumenthal. “Mental health care access is essential, but is often unavailable to communities of color. The current level of available mental health care – especially for low-income Americans and communities of color – is abysmal. With the ongoing health and economic crisis, improving access to mental health care is of the highest priority.”

This bill was developed in response to the Congressional Black Caucus’s (CBC) report on racial disparities in mental health care, and is the Senate companion to Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman’s (D-N.J.-12) Pursuing Equity in Mental Health Act of 2019 (H.R. 5469), introduced in November 2019.

“We’ve got to do more to make sure that every American has access to mental health care, understands the resources that are available, and is connected to the counselors and providers that will help them maintain balance. It’s doubly important for Black, indigenous and other people of color, and requires special attention to the unique challenges these communities face,” said Rep. Watson Coleman. “We need more access to care close to home. We need culturally competent providers – both providers trained about inherent biases, and providers of color who are more capable of connecting with their patients. That’s why I introduced the Pursuing Equity in Mental Health Act, and why I’m so grateful to see Senators Menendez, Booker, and Cortez Masto take up this cause on the other side of the Capitol. This is important work, and I know that together we can get it done.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide remains the second leading cause of death among teens aged 15 to 19, with the suicide death rate among Black youth increasing faster than any other racial or ethnic group according to the CBC’s report. 

Furthermore, a study published last year in the Journal of Pediatrics found that Black youth experienced a significant increase in suicide attempts between 1991 and 2017, with a greater rate of injury in boys, suggesting use of increasingly lethal means when attempting suicide.

The Mental Health Equity Act of 2020 would:

       Provide Grants for Culturally Competent Mental Health Services:

  • Authorizes $20 million annually for five years to establish inter-professional health care teams to provide behavioral health care at Federally Qualified Health Centers, rural health clinics, and behavioral health programs that predominantly serve people of color.
  • Authorizes such sums as may be necessary to develop cultural competency educational curricula so students training to be social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists can more effectively  treat youth of color.  

     Increase Authorize Funding Levels for Research and Minority Fellowship Program:

  • Authorizes $650 million annually for five years for the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD)  to conduct research on addressing mental and physical health disparities.
  • Authorizes an additional $100 million annually for five years for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to build relationships with communities and support clinical research. 
  • Doubles the authorization of the Minority Fellowship Program (MFP) to $25 million for five years to help more students of color become psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, and therapists.

    Direct Research and Resources at Federal Departments and Agencies:

  • Directs the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to establish a Commission on the Effects of Smartphone and Social Media Usage on Adolescents.
  • Prohibits federal funds from being used for conversion therapy and prohibits SAMHSA grants from going to states that continue to allow such practices.

The bill is supported by the National Hispanic Medical Association, Mental Health America, Mental Health Association in New Jersey, National Alliance on Mental Illness NJ, American Psychiatric Association, and Black Women’s Health Imperative.

“NHMA applauds Senator Menendez for introducing the Mental Health Equity Act of 2020 that will support critically needed Mental health services and research for racial and ethnic minorities,” said Elena Rios, MD, MSPH, FACP, President & CEO of the National Hispanic Medical Association

“Our nation must eliminate the pervasive structural inequities that are increasing suicides and mental health disorders among black youth, including those in economically and socially disadvantaged communities,” said American Psychiatric Association (APA) CEO and Medical Director Saul Levin, M.D., M.P.A. “As the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the health consequences of structural racism in painfully stark terms, the Mental Health Equity Act of 2020 can help to promote culturally competent, evidence-based mental health and substance use care while generating research designed to help us all better address existing disparities. The American Psychiatric Association thanks Senators Menendez, Booker and Cortez-Masto, as well as Representative Watson-Coleman, for their leadership on this important issue.”

The text of the bill can be downloaded here.