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This Mental Health Awareness Month, Congress should unlock telehealth’s potential

(The Orange County Register – May 5, 2024) – May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and in 2024, there is a mental health crisis in this country. While the pandemic is over, many Americans are still grappling with prolonged and increasing mental and emotional strain and facing increased risks of mental health disorders. As of 2021 suicide deaths are rising, with the largest increases seen among minority populations. Children and adolescents are especially struggling. In total, 13.8% of Asian adolescents and 22.2% of Hispanic adolescents experienced a major depressive episode during 2021.

In February of 2023, over 30 percent of U.S. adults reported symptoms consistent with depression or anxiety. Of adults suffering from these afflictions, more than 20% reported needing mental health services, but not receiving them. We all recall the pandemic-era isolation. In many cases, that isolation was even greater for Americans with language barriers. Just as FaceTime and Zoom helped Americans address their need for social interaction, telehealth expanded to help address their need for behavioral health services like virtual counseling. While social distancing and quarantines have ended, the mental health crisis persists. Telehealth must continue to be a part of our toolkit to address this problem.

Today, approximately 60% of psychiatric services are provided via telehealth. Telehealth has remarkable potential to increase access to health services and improve patient outcomes. While patients seeking behavioral health care previously had to take the time to get to a clinic and see a provider in person, now you can get therapy from the comfort of your couch, home office, or a park bench. However, barriers to this revolutionary technology remain for too many Americans.

For many reasons, seniors, minorities, and non-native English speakers are the ones least likely to get the care they need, as telehealth increasingly dominates the behavioral health space. Individuals with disabilities that inhibit their speech or comprehension of English are among the 25 million Americans with limited English proficiency (LEP) who may struggle to find the care they need. In fact, only 31 percent of Hispanics and 22 percent of Asians with mental illness receive any kind of treatment.

The Expanding Language Access in Telehealth Act seeks to make behavioral telehealth services more accessible for Medicare beneficiaries, of whom there are more than 80,000 in California’s 45th Congressional District. The District is also home to 175,000 LEP individuals and nearly 75,000 individuals with a disability. For them, and for millions like them across the country, breaking down barriers to care will drastically improve physical and mental health outcomes.

This bill, and its complement, the Supporting Patient Education and Knowledge (SPEAK) Act, will bring together government, patients, doctors, and health and technology industry leaders to put together a policy framework that addresses the gap between telehealth services and those with LEP, unique disabilities, or audio-visual impairments. Put simply, these two bills will ensure that all Americans have equal access the life-saving and life-changing care that telehealth can provide, regardless of the language they speak at home.

Telehealth offers an opportunity to turn the tide in the mental health crisis, but we must remove barriers to access. We cannot allow lack of English proficiency to shut out millions of Americans from getting the help they need.

By enacting targeted policy reforms, we can unlock telehealth’s potential to connect Americans with convenient, quality, and accessible care. These pieces of legislation are a part of the key. Congress should pass the SPEAK Act and the Expanding Language Access in Telehealth Act so that every American can happily and healthily build their own American Dream.

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