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Mental health shouldn't be "treated like a stepchild" to physical health, says HHS chief

HHS Secretary on the pandemic and mental health
Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra discusses impact of COVID-19 on mental health 05:42

The Biden administration plans to ramp up mental health services to aid millions of Americans struggling from the disruptions, hardships and grief of the COVID-19 pandemic, the nation's top federal health official says, but needs more money from Congress to do "transformative work on mental health." 

The comments by Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, on the eve of National Mental Health Awareness Month, come as the Biden administration has urged Congress to pour billions into a variety of behavioral health efforts. 

"One of the things that we're doing that I hope will be instrumental in letting all of us, including these children, get through COVID is that we're going to be devoting far more resources towards mental health care, making sure that families and these children have access to the mental health services they need," Becerra told CBS News correspondent Enrique Acevedo in a wide-ranging interview taped on Friday. 

He also acknowledged the disproportionate toll the pandemic has taken on Black, Hispanic and Native American families and children, and said the government has been doing outreach to help them access available benefits. 

Last month, Becerra's department announced it had awarded more than $100 million in COVID-19 relief money to states to shore up their crisis call centers ahead of the 988 dialing code for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline being activated nationwide this summer. It also recently touted resources to promote awareness of laws requiring insurance companies to cover mental health conditions on par with other medical treatments.

"We've seen how, unfortunately in this country, mental health is almost still treated like a stepchild to general health, physical health," said Becerra. 

The White House's COVID-19 response has gone out of its way to mention mental health as part of their plans in recent months, pledging to "launch new support" to respond to the "increase in behavioral health conditions" from the pandemic. 

COVID-19's official reported death toll in the U.S. could reach one million this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention forecasts, though studies suggest the true number of lives claimed by the virus is likely far higher

Through February, researchers estimated that more than 180,000 children in the U.S. have lost a parent or caregiver to the pandemic. About 65% of those kids are members of racial or ethnic minorities.

"Let me find you where you are and help, whether it's COVID getting you vaccinated before you get sick, or whether it's trying to make sure that you as a child who have lost your parents with COVID, we don't wait until you manifest the signs that you're having a really difficult time," Becerra said. 

How the HHS is tackling COVID-19 and health issues 04:48

Top pediatric health groups and the surgeon general have been warning about the "youth mental health crisis," saying the pandemic at least exposed — if not worsened for some children — a range of already worrying issues. A CDC official recently described survey data finding more than a third of high school students reporting signs of poor mental health as echoing "a cry for help." 

In 2020, around 46,000 lives in the U.S. were lost to suicide, making it one of the 10 leading causes of death and the second among children, the CDC recently tallied. That actually reflects a decline in the suicide rate, though research from previous disasters suggests the slowdown might be short lived. 

"Existing data suggest that suicide rates might be stable or decline during a disaster, only to rise afterwards as the longer-term sequelae unfold in persons, families, and communities, as was the case in New Orleans 2 years after Hurricane Katrina," the study's authors wrote. 

"I just need to do my job" 

Becerra responded to questions raised about the role he has played in helming the department's COVID-19 response, alluding to critics of his low public profile. 

"I don't need to go out there and shout from the top of a mountain so that someone can come broadcast it that we're doing our job. I just need to do my job," Becerra told CBS News.

He listed work to boost COVID-19 vaccination rates among Black and Latino adults as among the accomplishments of the administration's pandemic efforts, as well as record-high rates of Americans who now have health insurance. 

He also noted that despite signs of improvement, the country is still in the midst of a pandemic that could pose a danger to Americans. 

"We know that COVID is still with us, but we're in a far better place. And we urge every American to do everything we've learned that helps, so we can get an even better place," said Becerra. 

COVID-19 deaths are continuing to slow nationwide, but CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky recently warned that deaths were beginning to once again accelerate again in rural counties. Hospitalizations and cases have been climbing nationwide, with one in 10 Americans now living in communities of "medium" or "high" levels of COVID-19 according to the CDC's tally

In the Northeast, where the CDC estimates the Omicron subvariant BA.2.12.1 first became dominant in the U.S., the rate of new hospital admissions in the most vulnerable age group — 70 years and older — is now above the peaks seen during the Delta variant wave last year.  

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