President Joe Biden delivers his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol, Tuesday, March 1, 2022, in Washington. (Saul Loeb, Pool via AP)

(Updates story to add nationwide mental health tour by HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra in 5th paragraph.)

Against a backdrop of Russia’s live-on-television siege of Ukraine and the escalating series of human tragedies the invasion is unleashing, President Joe Biden used his first State of the Union speech to address the mental and emotional suffering that has been festering in the United States and offered what he called a “unity agenda” aimed at tackling the mental health and opioid crises.

He noted, in particular, the suffering of children before and during the pandemic from “bullying, violence, trauma and social media” and called for tech and social media companies to stop targeting children and collecting data about them. “We must hold social media platforms accountable for the national experiment they’re conducting on our children for profit,” Biden said.

He also uttered a term that probably has never before been used in a State of the Union address when he called for “full parity between physical and mental health care” – a reference to stepped-up efforts his administration is making to enforce laws requiring health insurers to pay for mental health services on the same basis as for medical or surgical care.

Earlier in the day, the administration released a fact sheet on Biden’s strategy to address the mental health crisis. The document called the crisis “unprecedented,” noting that two out of five adults report symptoms of anxiety or depression, that communities of color have less access to treatment and that “grief, trauma and physical isolation of the last two years have driven Americans to a breaking point.”

On Wednesday, the administration announced that Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra is beginning a “National Tour to Strengthen Mental Health” and will “hear directly from Americans across the country about the behavioral health challenges they’re facing.” In the coming months, Becerra will also announce new initiatives designed to implement a “whole-of-government strategy” to improve and transform mental health services.

The initiatives won praise from mental health advocacy organizations that see a historic opportunity to increase funding and attention for mental health services. The National Alliance on Mental Illness, better known as NAMI, released a statement lauding the President’s message.

“NAMI applauds President Biden for his unprecedented focus on mental health in the State of the Union address, providing the national attention that our ongoing mental health crisis deserves,” NAMI Chief Executive Officer Daniel H. Gillison Jr. said in a statement.

Biden’s strategy calls for boosting the number of behavioral health providers to address a gaping shortage of mental health professionals and changing the way services are delivered to address the “fragmentation of the current system” that makes it hard for people to get care.

The administration is also proposing:

-A $700 million investment for programs that provide training, access to scholarships and loan repayment to clinicians who will provide mental health and substance use treatment in rural and underserved communities. These items are baked into Biden’s budget proposal for FY23, which starts in July 2022.

-To increase programs that train and boost the number of community health workers – paraprofessionals who work directly with clients to support their healing and recovery. The Department of Health and Human Services is expected this fall to award more than $225 million to train community workers, according to the fact sheet.

-To create a national certification program for peer support specialists to “accelerate universal adoption, recognition, and integration of the peer mental health workforce across all elements of the health care system.” Peer support specialists are people who have experienced mental illness or substance use disorders and use that personal experience to help others going through similar struggles.

-To improve the mental wellbeing of frontline health workers exhausted and burned out by the stresses of their work before and during the pandemic and who have high rates of suicide, depression and anxiety. Biden will sign a bill just passed by Congress on a bipartisan basis that will invest $135 million over three years to provide training and support services aimed at preventing suicide among health care providers.

-To provide $700 million through the FY23 budget to support the rollout of the national 988 crisis-response line and to boost local crisis-response efforts across the country. This will add to $180 million provided through last year’s American Rescue Plan to support local call centers. Additional legislation is likely to be introduced soon in the House to provide additional support to help build a crisis-response system.

-To provide additional but unspecified funding to expand Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics that aim to provide comprehensive mental health care and support.

“After two years of grief, loss and isolation, Americans are in desperate need of more mental health supports and services,” Schroeder Stribling, president and CEO of Mental Health America, said in a statement. “The strategy the White House has laid out in its fact sheet is a necessary beginning, and it will save lives.”

Rob Waters

Rob Waters, the founding editor of MindSite News, is an award-winning health and mental health journalist and contributing writer to Health Affairs. Waters has worked as a staff reporter or editor at Bloomberg...