There's no universal phone number for Americans struggling with their mental health, but there should be
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In October of 2019, I convened a roundtable of fellow gun violence survivors and members of Congress to discuss our respective experiences and share ideas and resources that could help others struggling with similar tragedies. As a survivor of gun violence myself, having lost my father at the age of 24, I knew firsthand the mental toll and anguish that other survivors were feeling.

During this discussion, a young woman shared that one of the most difficult aspects of coping with the fallout was the lack of access to the necessary mental health and peer support resources to help with her grief. My heart broke as she described the familiar feelings of loss — how some days it was difficult enough for her to get out of bed, much less attempt to make an appointment with a mental health professional and then being told there wouldn’t be availability for weeks.

Her words moved me to act, and I began consulting with mental health experts to address the needs of gun violence survivors nationwide. However, as these conversations continued it became clear that the need for expanded mental health resources extended beyond gun violence survivors — that there was a significant shortage of mental health professionals nationwide and many were struggling to access the needed resources.

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Over 1 in 5 Americans, including 1 in 6 children, are living with mental health issues, and often experience long waits when seeking assistance. Over 1.7 million of our nation’s veterans are coping with mental health challenges, and not all are able to go to the VA for assistance. In fact, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan health non-profit Kaiser Family Foundation, the United States only has approximately 27 percent of the mental health professional workforce needed to address the current need. Even worse, my home state of Florida has less than 16 percent of the needed professionals to meet the mental health needs of Floridians. This is felt especially in my district, where Monroe County has the highest rate of suicide of any county in Florida.

As a member of the Congressional Mental Health Caucus, I am devoted to expanding access to mental health resources. For those experiencing immediate mental health crises or having suicidal ideations, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL) exists to provide free support. However, there is no equivalent resource for those who need assistance but are not in an immediate crisis. That’s why I proudly introduced the Peer Assisted Relief Through Networks of Empathetic Resources and Supports, or the PARTNERS Act.

The PARTNERS Act will establish a warm line under the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). This warm line will serve as a first stop for anyone in mental health distress, and callers will receive timely support from trained peers with similar lived experiences. Peer support professionals will also be trained in referring callers to professional services, or to organizations providing specialized aid such as groups providing assistance to our nation’s veterans, youth and LGBT populations.

The need is especially pressing given the COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus has affected every aspect of American life, including economic well-being, physical wellness, and mental health. In a recent survey conducted by the CDC, 41 percent of respondents indicated they were struggling with a mental health issue as a direct outcome of the pandemic. Another study by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that over 14 percent of kids were experiencing worsening mental health problems during the pandemic. Health care workers are also reporting significantly higher levels of mental health concerns. A critical part of recovering from this crisis will be making sure every person has the resources to take care of their mental health.

In recent years, we have fortunately begun to see the stigma around mental health begin to fade. Now we must all do our part to ensure that everyone, regardless of their income, zip code, or insurance status, has access to timely, quality support. The PARTNERS Act is big step in that direction.

Mucarsel-Powell represents Florida’s 26th District