Murkowski Leads HELP Hearing on Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders
Introduces New Legislative Proposals to Address the Growing Crisis
U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) helped lead a Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee hearing focused on America’s growing crisis of mental health and substance use disorders as well as the actions necessary to address them in a multi-faceted approach. The hearing featured mental health youth advocate, Claire Rhyneer of Eagle River, Alaska as a witness.
Senator Murkowski opened her remarks by speaking to mental health and substance use disorders, both of which have been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic and the lack of access to mental health care and substance use treatment and recovery.
“In Alaska, more than 80 percent of our communities do not have enough mental health providers, while mental health crises affecting the very young to the very old continue to grow. My home state ranks second in the U.S. for suicide deaths, has seen a sharp increase in drug overdose deaths, and has one of the highest rates of binge drinking. Suicide rates among members of our armed services have doubled. And, as we have seen across the nation, Native peoples face shockingly disproportionate rates of mental and behavioral health and substance use disorders and suicide,” said Senator Murkowski. “These statistics keep me up at night because they aren’t just statistics. They’re real people who are in pain. And I want anyone who is listening today, and struggling, to know that those of us in Congress are paying attention. We are working hard to make sure you can find the help you need.”
Senator Murkowski next spoke to her legislative efforts to address these crises—steps to prevent deaths, help those in recovery, and provide better access to treatment. Her policy initiatives include:
Mainstreaming Addiction Treatment Act to allow health care providers to prescribe buprenorphine—a proven medication-assisted treatment that saves lives;
Mental Health Professional Workforce Shortage Loan Repayment Act to bolster health care providers;
Tele-Mental Health Improvement Act to ensure insurance covers critical services;
Effective Suicide Screening and Assessment in the Emergency Department Act to provide emergency room personnel to proactively identify, assess, and treat individuals at risk of suicide.
Senator Murkowski also announced two new measures she plans to introduce in February. The first would provide additional mental health programming to elementary, middle, and high school students, and the second would support Coast Guard members who seek help for their mental health by preventing them from being automatically discharged.
During the hearing, Senator Murkowski introduced Alaskan witness Claire Rhyneer, who provided testimony on the importance of education and resources being made available for children and youth in schools.
“Barriers to care do not discriminate. They infiltrate every home, regardless of ethnicity, class, or geography. Compared to most, I’m privileged. Finding a community of peers let me that know that I was not alone. I was once again able to be focused on school, sports, my family and friends. I learned how to maintain my wellness. And I’m proud to say, ‘I know where you’re coming from,’ and ‘the pain is temporary’ and know that this is true. The people who do not find these supports, unlike me, are not here. Many of them will never be able to tell their story. So, we have an obligation to these youth to make a difference,” said Ms. Rhyneer. “We need to support school counselors. Station social workers in schools. Fund wellness programs at universities. And introduce mental health curriculum into health classes where they belong. We must reflect on the way we separate academic success from mental wellbeing. We need to make care more affordable, insurers incorporated into primary care, and that it’s covered by insurance. We need culturally competent health care workers and diversity among providers. We need to reduce stigma, promote early intervention, normalize mental health conversations early, and educate our youth, teachers, and parents.”
Senator Murkowski acknowledged Ms. Rhyneer’s involvement in suicide prevention trainings in school, asking to share the importance of increasing access to such training and recommendations for reaching children and youth in order to prevent future tragedies.
“Suicide is a huge issue in Alaska. Alaska does the youth risk behavior survey, and it’s shown that the percentage of students attempting suicide has grown significantly over the past few years. In 2019, twenty-five percent of all students in Alaska’s school districts seriously considered suicide, and twenty percent of them attempted,” said Ms. Rhyneer. “One thing that prevents students from talking about it is the stigma that parents have. Kids never even reach the point of asking for help, because they doubt and diminish their experience. They don’t think anything is wrong. They’re scared. They think their family will crack jokes or not take them seriously. Talking about mental health in schools, specifically in health classes, we begin conversations early, and allow space for people to share. Health classes currently cover topics like nutrition, physical health, exercise, dental health, cancer prevention, and mental health deserves to be a topic in those classes—it’s just as important. Guidelines for this kind of curriculum would be developed with local, statewide, and national agencies to make sure it was safe and age appropriate. It would help see symptoms, recognize them, and know what to do about them and reach out for help.”