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The demand for mental healthcare has skyrocketed

By Anthony Verrelli

If you are feeling anxious, depressed, upset or uncertain, know this – you are not alone.

In addition to claiming the lives of over 100,000 Americans, the COVID-19 pandemic is responsible for an unprecedented uptick in mental health issues in our state, across our country and around the world.

The volume of calls placed to the Americans to the Disaster Distress Helpline, which provides emotional support during natural and human-caused disasters, increased by 338% between February and March, and calls placed in March increased by 891% as compared to March of 2019. In April, texts sent to the helpline increased by 1,000% as compared to the previous year.

Domestic violence incidents have increased and “deaths of despair” by alcohol, drugs, and suicide are projected to rise. It is likely that more drug overdose deaths occurred in New Jersey during the month of May than during any one month over the past three years, according to data released by the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Over 1 million New Jerseyans who have been laid off or furloughed in the wake of the closure of non-essential businesses have filed claims for unemployment insurance, and we know that high unemployment rates are associated with increases in suicide and substance abuse.

On June 11, my colleagues on the Assembly Health Committee and I listened to nearly three hours of testimony from behavioral healthcare professionals who detailed the cataclysmic impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the mental health of frontline healthcare workers. The testimony was gut-wrenching and heart-breaking. People need help in record numbers, and they need that help now.

To that end, we in the Legislature have the power to act now to help meet the drastic increase in the demand for mental health services. I am the prime sponsor of two pieces of legislation that I believe would help to meet this increase in demand.

One of these bills is Assembly Bill 4174, which provides that institutions of higher education would have the power to permit final-year students in graduate degree programs for mental health care programs to graduate or be matched with residency or clinical programs early.

Rutgers New Jersey Medical School students and Rutgers University nursing students have already had their graduations expedited to allow more doctors and nurses to join the fight against COVID-19 – there is no reason we should not do the same for future mental-health practitioners.

Assembly Bill 4246 would permit expedited licensure in mental health professions for certain out-of-state individuals during a state of emergency or public health emergency.

Any person seeking to move to New Jersey to practice in the mental health field would be able to do so more easily than would otherwise be possible. Such a person would be supervised by a practitioner with a full license and would have to apply for a full license when the public-health emergency is lifted.

Our mental health practitioners are heroes. They need support, and they need it now. They need their ranks bolstered, and they need their ranks bolstered now.