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Sen. Cortez Masto reintroduces legislation to improve access to virtual behavioral health services


U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) has reintroduced her Virtual Peer Support Act in an effort to provide access to behavioral health services for people in the Silver State. The move comes amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that has been linked to a rise in mental health crises, including rising suicides among schoolchildren.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto

“I had the opportunity to talk to some of our high school students online throughout the state, who were learning online, about their challenges,” Cortez Masto said in an interview with This Is Reno. “And there was no doubt—they consistently said it’s a stressor. There’s a lot of anxiety. There’s mental health concerns associated with it because of, maybe, their family situations or the fact that they miss being in school, miss the students, miss having that interaction with adults or counselors or miss the extracurricular activities or just have a lot of anxiety just learning online. There’s a lot of stress for a kids because of this type of learning.”

What school administrators see as an uptick in student suicides in Clark County—18 children between March and December of 2020—has prompted the county and its school district, the fifth-largest in the nation, to start bringing kids back into the classroom as soon as possible, regardless of COVID-19.

The New York Times recently reported a “surge of student suicides” in Clark County, but county data don’t support that statement. (Similarly, Washoe County Medical Examiner Dr. Laura Knight recently stated there has not been an uptick of youth suicide in Washoe County as a result of the pandemic.)

The Nevada Current reported in November. that “Nevada’s children are killing themselves at a rate higher than youth in any other state in the nation. But it’s likely not the pandemic that’s to blame. 2020 is an average year in terms of youth suicides in Clark County, which range the last five years from a low of 10 in 2019 to a high of 20 the previous year.

The legislation Cortez Masto reintroduced, however, was first introduced in August of 2020 and is intended to help improve behavioral health support programs by transitioning them to an online setting. It would provide $50 million in grants through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to eligible organizations to fund the implementation of new programs and the expansion of existing online services.  

“It is happening to families across this country. It does not matter their party. It doesn’t matter if they’re urban or rural. So many families are stressed right now.”

Cortez Masto said she believes the legislation, if passed, could make a meaningful difference in the lives of everyone, from children to the elderly and portions of the population who have been under considerable stress throughout the pandemic like first responders and health care professionals—many of whom received in-person behavioral health services and peer-to-peer support prior to the arrival of COVID-19 in Nevada in March of 2020.

The grant funding could be used for immediate implementation of peer support programs, virtual transition costs, development of the mental health workforce, and expanding services to meet community needs by offering multilingual or demographic-specific assistance for groups such as frontline COVID-19 health care workers, veterans, caregivers and seniors. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) would also be required to report to Congress on the efficacy of the programs.

“There’s so much need in our state, and now is the time to invest in it,” Cortez Masto said. “Now is the time to support it because of this pandemic. That’s why I so strongly believe that we have to remember we’re in the middle of a health crisis, and it’s not going away any time soon.

“So many people are struggling because of it,” she added. “We have the second highest unemployment rate. Our hospitality industry has been hit so hard. Our businesses have shuttered. Our restaurants have shuttered. Our live events—you name it. We need to continue to support them. And that includes support around not just health care in general but behavioral health services as well.”

The City of Reno in December 2020 used a portion of its CARES Act funds–$1.3 million–to provide text therapy through the TalkSpace app for the city’s residents. City council members made the move because of what they said was a shortage of mental health support in the community and the need to provide immediate relief to those struggling during the pandemic.

Cortez Masto said the struggles Nevadans have faced is what spurred her to look for ways to apply COVID relief funding from the federal government to local, state and Tribal efforts to provide mental and behavioral health services.

“That’s why I supported all of these COVID relief packages, including the one that’s coming out now that the Biden administration has proposed and that we need to do in March or April when the current COVID relief money runs out,” she said.

The Virtual Peer Support Act is not the only one she’s introduced to address behavioral health needs.

During the last session of Congress, she introduced the Mental Health Equity Act to expand mental health access for communities of color by supporting scientific research and increasing funding for existing federal programs. Also last year, she introduced a bill to increase the number of mental health providers in low-income and rural schools. Additionally, she’s exploring ways to adapt that or similar legislation to best serve students who are still learning remotely.

Cortez Masto also advocated for the more than $7 billion that was included to aid broadband accessibility in the most recent COVID package. Right now she’s working to refine and improve her Behavioral Health Crisis Services Expansion Act—intended to help people who might be struggling with substance abuse or thoughts of self-harm—to create a continuum of behavioral health crisis services across the country. According to her press secretary, she is looking forward to reintroducing this legislation soon.

Cortez Masto said she foresees bipartisan support for the Virtual Peer Support Act.

“It is happening to families across this country,” she said. “It does not matter their party. It doesn’t matter if they’re urban or rural. So many families are stressed right now. So, this really is legislation that’s focused on how we help all of our families from our children to the adults.”

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find a list of additional resources at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources. Sign up for TalkSpace, if you are a Reno resident, at: https://www.talkspace.com/reno 

Jeri Chadwell
Jeri Chadwellhttp://thisisreno.com
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.




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