The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and related economic crisis—such as increased social isolation, stress, and unemployment—have intensified concerns about the number of people in the U.S. affected by behavioral health conditions: mental health and substance use disorders.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that certain populations may be at higher risk of pandemic-related behavioral health effects, including children and adolescents, healthcare workers, and people from some racial or ethnic groups, like Latinos. For example, GAO found that children and adolescents had rising rates of behavioral health conditions before the pandemic and then faced disruptions to school-based behavioral health services.
As of November 2021, the federal government awarded over $8 billion in COVID-19 relief funding for behavioral health. Over 97 percent of this funding was provided to states and other recipients through six programs: one Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) program, and five Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) programs. For example, SAMHSA awarded about $5.3 billion to 50 states, Washington, D.C., eight U.S. territories and other jurisdictions, and one tribe through supplements to existing substance abuse and mental health block grants using standard statutory formulas. FEMA also awarded about $467 million to 46 states, Washington, D.C., and four U.S. territories via the Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training Program.
GAO’s review of program documentation shows that the COVID-19 relief funds for behavioral health, as awarded through the six programs, could generally serve the six higher-risk populations identified by speaking to stakeholders as part of the watchdog’s review.
Selected funding recipients in four states and Washington, D.C., reported varying ways they were using, or planned to use, relief funds to reach higher-risk populations. For example, officials in one state said they planned to use some mental health block grant funds to assist children and adolescents in the child protective services system.
SAMHSA officials told GAO that it would take time to determine who was actually served by COVID-19 relief funded programs, but said that it was important to examine grantee data to determine whether target populations were reached and identify any gaps, and the agency planned to do so.