On October 5, 2020, the White House issued President Trump’s Executive Order on Saving Lives Through Increased Support for Mental- and Behavioral-Health Needs (the “Executive Order”), which seeks to provide federal support to address mental and behavioral health concerns arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Executive Order acknowledges the exacerbating effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on mental and behavioral health conditions due to “stress from prolonged lockdown orders, lost employment, and social isolation,” and emphasizes the importance of coordinating action across federal, state, local, and Tribal partners to effectively address these concerns. The Executive Order points to survey data issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which indicates that during the last week of June 2020, 40.9 percent of Americans reported struggling with mental health or substance abuse issues, with 10.7 percent reporting seriously considering suicide. Accordingly, the Executive Order states that “[i]t is the policy of the United States to prevent suicides, drug-related deaths, and poor behavioral-health outcomes, particularly those that are induced or made worse by prolonged State and local COVID-19 shutdown orders.”

To address these concerns, the Executive Order focuses on the following strategies to be taken at a national level, among others:

  • Increased crisis intervention services;
  • Increased availability of and access to continuing care following an initial crisis;
  • Increased mentorship programs and support groups;
  • Increased availability of telehealth and online mental health and substance use tools and services; and
  • Public and private resources to address mental health, including factors that contribute to prolonged unemployment and social isolation.

Additionally, the Executive Order establishes a Coronavirus Mental Health Working Group (the “Working Group”) tasked with formulating an “all-of-government” collaborative response to address the mental health impacts of COVID-19. The Working Group will be co-chaired by the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Alex Azar, and the Acting Director of the Domestic Policy Council, Brooke Rollins, and will be further comprised of representatives from various federal agencies, including the Department of Justice, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The Working Group is directed to consider the mental-and behavioral-health conditions of certain vulnerable populations who have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and evaluate existing protocols and evidence-based programs to identify potential strategies for improving support for these populations. Based on this review, the Working Group is further tasked with developing and submitting a plan to facilitate coordination between public and private stakeholders to improve service offerings and better assist individuals in crisis. The Working Group’s plan must be submitted to the President by November 19, 2020. Secretary Azar released a statement in support of the Executive Order, noting that it was a “welcome opportunity to increase efforts to address the mental health effects of the pandemic,” which has compounded mental health and behavioral health conditions by “adding new stresses and disrupting access to treatment.”

Finally, the Executive Order further directs the heads of agencies, in consultation with the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, to examine existing grant programs that fund mental health, medical, or related services and encourage grantees to consider adopting policies that have been shown to improve mental health and reduce suicide risk, with an emphasis on “safe in-person” services. As part of this initiative, the agencies are also encouraged to award contracts and grants to community organizations and other local entities to enhance mental health and suicide prevention services, including outreach, education, and case management services for vulnerable populations.