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Mental health should not be “treated like a stepchild” to physical health, says HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra

Watch a portion of the interview in the video player above, and more at “Red Blue” streaming live at 6 p.m. ET on the CBS News app on your mobile or streaming device.


Biden administration plans to ramp up mental health services to help millions of Americans struggling with the disruptions, hardships and pain of the COVID-19 pandemic, says the nation’s top federal health official, but needs more money from Congress to do “transformative work in mental health.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra’s comments on the eve of National Mental Health Awareness Month come as the Biden administration has urged Congress to spend billions on a variety of behavioral health efforts.

“One of the things that we’re doing that I hope is critical to enabling all of us, including these kids, to get through COVID is that we’re going to put a lot more resources into mental health care, making sure families and these kids have access to the mental health services they need,” Becerra told CBS News correspondent Enrique Acevedo in a wide-ranging interview taped Friday.

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

Last month, Becerra’s department announced that it had awarded more than $100 million in COVID-19 relief money to states to shore up their crisis call centers before dialing code 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline that will be activated throughout the country this summer. Recently, it also promoted resources to promote awareness of the laws that require insurance companies to cover mental health conditions at the same level as other medical treatments.

“We’ve seen how, unfortunately in this country, mental health is almost still treated like a stepchild of general health, physical health,” Becerra said.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra
Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra testifies at a Senate hearing on COVID-19 and schools, September 30, 2021.

GREG NASH/POOL/AFP via Getty Images


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

The official number of deaths from COVID-19 in the US could reach one million this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention forecasts, although studies suggest the true number of lives claimed by the virus is probably much higher.

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

“Let me meet you where you are and help you, whether it’s COVID vaccinating you before you get sick, or whether you’re trying to make sure that you, as a child who lost your parents to COVID, don’t wait until the signs show that you’re going through a really tough time,” Becerra said.

Major pediatric health groups and the surgeon general have been warning of a “youth mental health crisis,” saying the pandemic has at least exposed, if not worsened for some children, a range of problems that were already concerning. A CDC official recently described survey data that found that more than a third of high school students reported signs of poor mental health as echoing “a cry for help.”

In 2020, about 46,000 lives in the US were lost to suicide, making it one of the top 10 causes of death and second among children, according to a recent CDC tally. That actually reflects a decrease in the suicide ratethough research from past disasters suggests the slowdown could be short-lived.

“Existing data suggests that suicide rates may remain stable or decline during a disaster, only to rise afterwards as longer-term sequelae on individuals, families, and communities unfold, as was the case in New Orleans two years after Hurricane Katrina,” the study authors wrote.

“I just need to do my job”

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

“I don’t need to go out and shout from the top of a mountain for someone to come and convey that we are doing our job. I just need to do my job,” Becerra told CBS News.

He cited the work to increase COVID-19 vaccination rates among black and Latino adults as one of the achievements of the administration’s pandemic efforts, as well as the record rates of Americans now having 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 are in a much better place. And we urge all Americans to do everything we’ve learned that helps, so we can have an even better place,” Becerra said.

COVID-19 deaths continue to decline across the country, but CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky recently warned that deaths were beginning to accelerate again in rural counties. Hospitalizations and cases have increased across the country, with one in 10 Americans now living in communities with “medium” or “high” levels of COVID-19 by the CDC’s count.

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