Weekly Column

**Audio is not available of this week’s column** 

The United States is experiencing a mental health crisis, and Nebraska is no exception. In 2016, the University of Nebraska Medical Center announced that one in five Nebraskans had reported suffering from mental illness that year. And in 2018, suicide was the second leading cause of death for Nebraskans aged 15 to 34.

Unfortunately, COVID-19 has only made the mental health issues many people struggle with worse. In response to this aspect of the pandemic, the Senate unanimously passed the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act in May, a bill that would shorten the ten-digit national suicide hotline phone number to just three numbers: 9-8-8. 

I am proud to be a cosponsor of this effort to make it easier for those experiencing a mental health crisis to get help. Many people with mental illness struggle silently, and one of the most important things we can do to help is to provide them with the resources they need to fight back.

Besides a national suicide hotline, the federal government runs several programs that offer mental health resources through funding grants, but locating and accessing them can be complicated. Due to the cross-cutting nature of mental health struggles, which present challenges in education, work, housing, and public safety settings, funding is spread out over several different agencies, and it is often difficult for organizations seeking grants to know which program to apply for or whether they qualify.

I believe that government and its taxpayer-funded resources should be as accessible and transparent as possible. To bring these values to federal mental health programs, I introduced the Achieving Thorough Transparency & Accessibility for Information Navigation (ATTAIN) on Mental Health Act with my Senate colleague Tina Smith, a Democrat from Minnesota.

This bipartisan bill would direct the Secretary of HHS to establish an interactive online dashboard where potential applicants could find information such as grant names, application deadlines, and direct access to program information websites. This would simplify the search process and make it much easier for organizations that support mental health to find out which grants they qualify for.

This user-friendly, web-based dashboard would be especially important for rural Americans. The idea for this bill came from conversations with a variety of entities across rural Nebraska, who also told me that because mental health specialists tend to live in urban areas, the communities that rural organizations serve tend not to receive the same level of support.

However, this dashboard would make it easier for organizations based in rural parts of any state to find federal mental health funds for which they are eligible – grants that institutions in bigger cities with larger budgets often take for granted. This would help ensure that communities can better access the same federal resources, regardless of location.

While HHS would be tasked with developing this online tool, our bill would direct them to do so in collaboration with the other federal agencies that distribute federal mental health funds, including the Department of Justice and the Department of Education. HHS would be required to complete work on the portal within two years, and the final product would make this process easier for all involved.

I have been working on the ATTAIN on Mental Health Act since before the pandemic began, but the stress and isolation this virus has brought make clearer access to mental health services even more crucial to those with mental illness. This dashboard would help modernize the grant-finding process and make sure we are prepared to meet future crises head-on.

Thank you for participating in the democratic process. I look forward to visiting with you again next week.