Keeping mental health top of mind amid the COVID-19 pandemic
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It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic, and the measures that have been in place for the past several months to mitigate its effects, have led to feelings of increased loneliness, isolation, and sadness among many. For too many Americans, this unprecedented crisis has led to the increased use of illegal drugs such as cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin, and illicit fentanyl, or relapse for those in recovery. The numbers are alarming: according to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll released in July, 53 percent of Americans say their mental health has been adversely affected by the pandemic, and preliminary data indicates an alarming increase in drug overdose deaths since March.

To address the toll these extended constraints on socialization have had on Americans, President TrumpDonald TrumpCaitlyn Jenner says election was not 'stolen,' calls Biden 'our president' Overnight Health Care: FDA authorizes Pfizer vaccine for adolescents | Biden administration reverses limits on LGBTQ health protections Overnight Defense: US fires 30 warning shots at Iranian boats | Kabul attack heightens fears of Afghan women's fates | Democratic Party leaders push Biden on rejoining Iran deal MORE recently signed an executive order to mobilize the federal government to ensure that people struggling with mental and behavioral health issues — including substance use disorder — receive the help they need during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The executive order, “Saving Lives Through Increased Support for Mental and Behavioral Health Needs,” takes critical actions to help our nation overcome the dual public health challenges of mental health and substance use disorder and a once-in-a-century pandemic.

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As someone in long-term recovery, I know firsthand how hard it can be to remain on the path to recovery in difficult times. And as the Deputy Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, I know that President Trump’s executive order isn’t just good policy, it’s a true act of leadership. With this executive order, President Trump is advocating for a vulnerable population whose unique needs are being ignored in exchange for a one-size-fits-all policy of prolonged shutdowns. Put more plainly, he is saving lives by offering Americans the opportunity to get the help they deserve.

The Trump administration also recognizes that many people with a severe substance use disorder are at greater risk for death or experiencing other substance-related calamities than they are from dying of COVID-19. This is especially true for adolescents and younger adults, who are much less susceptible to the deleterious effects of COVID-19. Furthermore, with strict lockdowns come boredom, and for many people prone to significant behavioral health difficulties, boredom is a clinical issue, as opposed to a temporary state of mind. When people are forced into extremely stressful situations such as enforced social isolation or financial ruin, who also exhibit limited coping skills and low frustration tolerances, feelings of loneliness and boredom are often alleviated by “acting out” in potentially self-destructive ways. A study conducted by Millennium Health revealed that substance misuse has escalated during the pandemic with heroin up 13 percent, non-prescribed fentanyl up 32 percent, and the use of other dangerous substances has also increased as well. It is little wonder the nation is experiencing an increase in drug overdoses.

To address this issue of social isolation, President Trump’s executive order on mental health makes room for safe supportive social gatherings. It is common knowledge that 12 step recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous and other recovery-oriented groups have saved countless lives. The first word in the first step of 12 step recovery programs is “we,” which sets the premise that community, togetherness and fellowship are essential in overcoming addiction. In this regard, people participating in group therapy are relating to one another about shared experiences, core issues, and other emotionally charge issues, and we believe people should have the opportunity for safe in-person sessions.

It will bring to bear the full weight and authority of the federal government to accomplish four key goals: address the mental and behavioral health issues arising from unemployment and social isolation; provide crisis intervention services and follow-on care to improve behavioral health outcomes; allow safe, in-person support groups through schools, civic centers, and houses of worship; and direct critical funding to behavioral health services.

This is a whole-of-government approach to addressing mental and behavioral health. In October, I joined second lady Karen PenceKaren Sue PencePences announce birth of first grandchild Can a common bond of service unite our nation? The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - House boots Greene from committees; Senate plows ahead on budget MORE, Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and Assistant Secretary John Lowry of the Department of Labor, and many others, at the Philadelphia Veteran’s Administration Hospital to highlight the need for prioritizing mental health and suicide prevention efforts so every American has the opportunity to lead a life filled with purpose and dignity.

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President Trump, my colleagues at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, and the totality of our federal agencies are committed to meeting the challenges presented by the pandemic, improving the overall mental health of the American people, reducing drug use, expanding access to substance use disorder treatment and recovery support, and ultimately, saving lives from drug overdose.

As the country continues to recover from the consequences of extended lockdowns, the people of the United States can rest assured that as we return to normalcy, no one is forgotten and no one will be left behind.

Dr. Art Kleinschmidt is the Deputy Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Visit whitehouse.gov/ondcp for more info.