Op-ed: Massachusetts must do better on mental health

The Massachusetts State House is pictured. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Justin Hong is a junior studying American Studies. 

America faces a mental health crisis. Rates of anxiety and depression — especially among young people — are spiking. This burgeoning crisis has the potential to handicap our generation with long-lasting impacts. With the rollout of the new 988 mental health crisis number this summer, our country has taken an important step towards remedying this crisis. However, the fight is far from over. 

Massachusetts’ own congressman Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.) is a national leader on mental health policy. Alongside Congressman Chris Stewart (R-Utah), he introduced the landmark National Suicide Hotline Designation Act which was signed into law by President Trump in 2020. The bill designates 988 as the universal telephone number for a national suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline. It also includes a provision to empower individual states to provide continual funding for the program by charging a small fee on phone bills — the same system that funds 911. 

It is now up to the states to fund the implementation of this program. Massachusetts has secured $10 million to get it up and running, but a permanent funding source has yet to be established. A bill introduced by Massachusetts State Sen. Julian Cyr, S. 1274, would have done just that. However, the bill was killed by the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Health Care Financing in early September and will not be considered again until the next legislative session, which begins January 2023.  

This is problematic not only because the $10 million already appropriated will only cover the first year of 988 operations in Massachusetts, but because the decision also opens up another can of worms: transparency, or rather the lack thereof, at the State House. S. 1274 was killed behind closed doors in a committee vote whose results are not available to the public. My state representative Christine Barber, whose jurisdiction covers Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus, serves on that committee, but we do not know how she voted on a bill so critical to the wellbeing of her constituents and people across the Commonwealth. 

Clearly, mental health care is not a priority for state lawmakers. S. 1274 would fund 988 implementation in the exact same way 911 is funded, and no one questions the necessity of 911 or the tax used to pay for it. Lawmakers’ opposition to extending that funding structure to 988 demonstrates their belief that mental health care is not an essential service. This is a backward decision that is fundamentally opposed to the wishes of our state’s congressional delegation as well as the hundreds of thousands of college students and young people across the state who are dealing with the profound impacts of a mental health crisis. 

Getting this bill passed is not a pipe dream. Virginia, Washington, Nevada and Colorado have already passed versions of this bill, and the California state legislature passed its own version in late August. Massachusetts and the rest of America must follow these states’ lead in passing these funding bills. 

I am grateful that Tufts has student organizations like Ears4Peers to fill this critical gap in our mental health care infrastructure, but not everyone has access to resources like these. I understand that no one wants to levy superfluous taxes or fees, but this bill is anything but that. It is far past time to treat mental health care as the medical necessity that it is. This program has the potential to save lives and it is a national embarrassment that state lawmakers, who uphold Massachusetts as a national leader on social issues, would handicap it and punt the issue to the next legislative session. It represents a disinterest in the future of our Commonwealth and our country. 

I recognize that this bill is not a silver bullet to end the mental health crisis; we need to simultaneously bolster our current mental healthcare infrastructure and seek out comprehensive solutions to expand access to care. This is but one example of common sense legislation that faces an uphill battle to passage on Beacon Hill. Any student here would be able to tell you just how hard it is to seek care. At this point, this is beyond just a problem; it is a full five-alarm fire. The pandemic shed light on the flaws in our system and as the severity of the crisis grows, our response must match it in urgency. We have the tools we need to combat today’s crises. What we need now are leaders who are bold enough to use them. 

Correction: Because of an editing error, a previous version of this article misstated the amount of states that have already passed versions of S. 1274. The article has been updated to better reflect the distinction between states that enacted 988 infrastructure with and without a permanent funding mechanism in place. The Daily regrets this error.


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