Managing mental health and substance abuse through COVID-19

At the Virginia State of Reform Health Policy Conference, behavioral health professionals and state legislators discussed the effects of COVID-19 on mental health and substance abuse, and how the state can better provide care services coming out of the pandemic. 

The conversation featured Del. Rod Willett, member of the House Health, Welfare and Institutions Committee, Alison Land, the Department of Behavioral Health and Development Services Commissioner, Bethany Teachman, professor and director of Clinical Training at the University of Virginia and Kevin Roy, Chief Public Policy Officer at Shatterproof.


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Teachman cited that over the course of the pandemic, people are experiencing higher levels of mental health issues or substance abuse. For example, pre-COVID studies estimated one in four people experience an anxiety disorder. That figure jumped up to 40 percent in June 2020, where 40% of U.S. adults reported struggling with mental health issues or substance abuse. 

The lack of in-person services during the pandemic decreased access to mental health care while demand has increased significantly. According to Mental Health America, Virginia ranked 39th among states in access to mental health care in 2020. Teachman says the key to reducing this gap in mental health care is focusing on innovative solutions that address delivery models of care—particularly telehealth and non-specialist providers.

“There’s so much that can be done with integrated care models, and really, delivering care where people are already going.”

Roy, whose work with Shatterproof aims to end the addiction crisis in the United States, says Virginia can incorporate additional mental health resources in the primary care setting, which would be covered by Medicaid or commercial insurance. Shatterproof also looks to include Virgina in a program that assesses specialty providers on the quality of their care. Measurement-based assessments can gauge how much access to care has improved, he continues. 

“Just measuring whether someone’s improving their care—either on a validated mental health indicator, or there’s pretty good indicators around addition as well—just measuring care improves care.” 

Commissioner Land provided an update on STEP-VA, a $60 million initiative that will provide community behavioral health services to all Virginians via the state’s 40 community service boards. She says that although the CSBs have had to pivot to telehealth care models during the pandemic, they are in the process of both restoring in-person services and expanding their care services. Land also mentions a number of federal grants that address mental health and substance use services during the pandemic.

“We were just recently awarded just under $53 million in a federal grant to help fight the opioid epidemic, as well as stimulus abuse issues, and that will be invaluable as we fight the impacts going forward from COVID-19.”

Del. Willett closed out the panel with an update on mental health expansion efforts into Virginia’s school systems, particularly by hiring more school counselors. 

“That was something I had focused on pre-COVID. We thought we had the money for it, we lost it, but we got it back. And so, we’re getting some additional funding to hire more counselors.”

Looking ahead, Del. Willett also plans on a series of summer meetings with the House behavioral health subcommittee to address the state’s psychiatric bed shortage, as most facilities are at full or even over capacity. He says behavior health in Virginia is a bipartisan priority among legislatures as they work to address the public’s growing need for health care accessibility.

“It absolutely does make a difference, when you reach out to your delegates and your senators. So please do [reach out] and continue to communicate that need.”