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Opinion: Mental health, addiction treatment important amid crisis

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It’s no surprise that people are feeling anxious right now.

Workers are worrying about how they’ll pay the rent as hours are cut back. Young parents are trying to do their jobs remotely while watching their children who are home from school. Older people are weighing the health risks of making a quick run to the grocery store.

Most people’s lives have been turned upside down by the coronavirus.

As Congress takes action to keep our economy strong and our people healthy, we can’t forget those who far too often have been left behind – people who are living with mental illness and those struggling with addiction.

It’s estimated that 1 in 5 people in our country are living with mental illness or substance use disorders. Sadly, people with mental illness and people with substance use disorders may fail to get the treatment they need in a typical year. And as we know, this year is anything but typical.

We know that people who misuse opioids are at high risk for coronavirus. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse and other health experts, opioids impact the respiratory and pulmonary health of users and make them more susceptible to respiratory infections, including coronavirus.

People who are living with a mental illness or addiction often have other health conditions that make them more likely to suffer severe complications from the coronavirus.

Responding to the coronavirus pandemic requires a comprehensive health care strategy, including increasing access to community mental health and addiction treatment services. And the best way we can do that is to include the expansion of Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics in the next emergency package passed by Congress.

Six years ago, we worked together to pass our Excellence in Mental Health and Addiction Treatment Act. It created quality standards of care and funding to open community clinics that are transforming mental health and addiction treatment.

After only two years of operations, communities that have CCBHCs are providing life-saving services. They work closely with law enforcement and our schools and coordinate with hospitals to dramatically reduce emergency room visits.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, they’ve led to a 60% decrease in time spent in jails, a 41% decrease in homelessness and a 63% decrease in emergency department visits for behavioral health. That’s a big deal when every hospital bed matters right now.

CCBHCs also are well-positioned to support those struggling to cope with the stress of coronavirus, whether it’s anxiety, depression, loneliness brought on by social isolation or even trauma faced by front-line health care workers. And many CCBHCs provide telemedicine services, allowing people to access help without increasing their potential exposure to the virus.

As our nation confronts COVID-19, we must not leave those with mental illness and addiction disorders behind. And the good news is, by working together, we can make sure that doesn’t happen.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, can be reached through Blunt.Senate.gov. U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, can be reached through Stabenow.Senate.gov.

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