Calls to US helpline jump 891%, as White House is warned of mental health crisis

Some federal officials worry the U.S. isn't prepared to meet nation's needs.

April 7, 2020, 4:09 AM

The national hotline providing emergency help to people suffering from emotional distress has received nearly nine times more calls than it did this time last year, with tens of thousands of Americans reaching out for assistance amid the coronavirus crisis, according to U.S. officials.

Federal officials on the front lines of the U.S. government’s pandemic response have privately warned members of the White House and Department of Homeland Security that many more Americans will find themselves in “dire straits” over the coming weeks, and that U.S. agencies have yet to properly prepare for the unfolding “mental health crisis.”

“I am very concerned,” said one U.S. official.

Though the Trump administration has recently approved hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding to boost mental health services, the official suggested even that additional money may not be enough to support the crisis counseling that will be needed.

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Last month the “Disaster Distress Helpline” at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) saw an 891% increase in call volume compared with March 2019, according to a spokesman for the agency, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services.

In fact, this March – ending little more than a week ago – saw 338% more calls to the helpline than in the month before, when the deadly virus began to take hold inside the U.S. homeland, and government officials began taking more extreme measures to stop its spread.

The agency's spokesman would not offer specific total figures, but the U.S. official said that last month the agency received more than 22,000 calls and text messages seeking help.

Nevertheless, over the past several weeks, mental health has only been discussed sporadically at the daily televised briefings from the White House.

President Donald Trump addresses the daily coronavirus task force briefing at the White House in Washington, April 6, 2020.
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Last week, on March 29, President Donald Trump suggested it is "common sense" to expect a “massive” jump in mental health issues.

“You’re going to have massive depression,” he said. “You’re going to have depression in the economy also. … [Expect] massive drug use, massive depression, mental depression, massive numbers of suicide.”

Two days earlier, Trump signed the $2 trillion emergency relief package known as the “CARES Act,” which set aside $425 million for SAMHSA “to address mental health and substance use disorders as a result of the coronavirus pandemic." Another $100 million is marked to supplement the agency's federal grant programs, according to Health and Human Services.

The bill also included $250 million for “Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics” to increase access to mental health care services, and another $50 million for suicide prevention efforts, according to HHS.

A White House official pointed to additional funding aimed at supporting mental health among military veterans and Native Americans.

According to the SAMHSA spokesperson, his agency has been working “very closely” with other federal agencies to address growing mental health problems and to relax federal restrictions so that people can more easily access the help they need.

But the U.S. official described federal efforts so far as still insufficient to address what the official believes will be happening on the ground in the weeks ahead, especially as the need for crisis counseling expands.

Bodies are moved to a refrigerator truck serving as a temporary morgue outside of Wyckoff Hospital in Brooklyn, April 4, 2020, in New York.
Bryan R. Smith/AFP/Getty Images

“Fear and anxiety about a disease can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children,” SAMHSA noted on its website devoted to the coronavirus.

Many are suffering from fear and anxiety about stay-at-home orders, “social distancing,” supply shortages and wide-scale unemployment. Homeland security officials have privately worried that already-unstable Americans could be propelled to violence by stress associated with the pandemic.

There are 57.8 million Americans currently living with mental or substance use disorders, according to SAMHSA.

The Disaster Distress Helpline is operational 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Its staffers “provide counseling and support before, during, and after disasters, and refer people to local disaster-related resources for follow-up care and support,” according to the agency's website.

Even before the coronavirus crisis hit, agencies like the SAMHSA received limited federal funding for their efforts. And while the mental health agency's budget has actually increased in recent years under the Trump administration, which has seen some of the nation’s worst mass shootings ever, the administration is seeking a slight cut in that funding for 2021, with a total request of $5.7 billion. Other agencies saw cuts as well.

A White House spokesman did not respond to an email seeking on-the-record comment for this article. And a message on Monday seeking comment from the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at HHS was not immediately returned.

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