Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, co-founded a bipartisan congressional task force focused on drafting legislation related to addiction and mental health.
The four members of the Addiction and Mental Health Task Force will conduct site visits and hold regular meetings with stakeholders, including mental health care providers and addiction specialists. According to a media release, the group's first priority will be gaining a fuller understanding of how COVID-19 has impacted the severity of mental health issues and addiction in America.
"Southwest Washington communities were already struggling with mental health and substance use issues prior to COVID — and the strain of the pandemic has increased those struggles exponentially," Herrera Beutler said in a media release. "I want to help people in Southwest Washington, and across the country, break addiction and obtain treatment for improved mental health."
The task force was co-founded alongside Reps. David Trone of Maryland and Ann McLane Kuster of New Hampshire, both Democrats, and Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania.
This isn't the first bipartisan legislative group formed by Herrera Beutler focused on a specific health concern. In 2015, she co-founded the Congressional Caucus on Maternity Care with Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., to draft narrow legislation aimed at improving health outcomes for pregnant women, new mothers and newborns.
Their most significant bill passed the House in September; the caucus helped shepherd the Helping MOMS Act through the chamber, which would grant states the option to extend Medicaid coverage for new mothers up to one full year postpartum. The current law only provides 60 days of coverage after birth.
Effects of pandemic
Though it's too soon to understand the full impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic on mental health and addiction, multiple studies have pointed to a crisis.
In June — just a few months into a pandemic that's since lasted more than a year — a study from the Centers offor Disease Control and Prevention found that approximately 40 percent of adults reported they were struggling with mental health or substance abuse. Thirty-one percent reported indications of anxiety or depression, 26 percent reported symptoms of trauma or stress-related disorders, 13 percent started or increased their use of substances and 11 percent had seriously considered suicide.
The Household Pulse Survey, a weekly online questionnaire issued by the National Center for Health Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau, provides more up-to-date information about the state of the country's mental health.
As of March 15, the most recent data available, 36.8 percent of U.S. adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder. For those who live in Washington, the figure was slightly higher at 37.3 percent.
A year's worth of that data would indicate that the mental health issues reported in June have persisted throughout the entire pandemic, with a spike around the wintertime.
As Kim Schneiderman, executive director of mental health peer-support agency NAMI Southwest Washington, told The Columbian in November: The isolation linked to the pandemic had been brutal on everyone but particularly hard on people with pre-existing mental health issues.
"They've lost their groups, their doctors, their therapists, their friends," Schneiderman said. "They've lost their routines. They've lost the place where they go have coffee. They've lost it all — all the very things we tell them they need to have in their lives. It's been a real slap in the face."