May 18, 2023

Reps. Watson Coleman, Napolitano, Senator Menendez Reintroduce Pursuing Equity in Mental Health Act

Bill would address disparities in access to mental health care in fight against nation's mental health crisis

Washington, D.C. (May 18, 2023) – Today, Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (NJ-12) announced the reintroduction of the Pursuing Equity in Mental Health Act. The Act was originally introduced in 2020 following a report from the Congressional Black Caucus’s Emergency Taskforce on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health chaired by Congresswoman Watson Coleman. The report – “Ring the Alarm: the Crisis of Black Youth Suicide in America.” – outlined the state of Black youth mental health and detailed policy recommendations for consideration by Congress. The bill is co-lead in the House by Grace Napolitano (CA-31). A companion bill has been introduced in the Senate by Bob Menendez of New Jersey.

In 2021, the Pursuing Equity in Mental Health Act passed the House but didn’t get a vote in the Senate.

In 2018, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics published a report that found that for the first time in the history of such research, the rate of suicides for Black children between the ages of five and 12 has exceeded that of White children, and more than a third of elementary school-aged suicides involved Black children. A 2019 study published in the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Journal Pediatrics found that self-reported suicide attempts rose in Black teenagers, even as they fell in other groups; and further analysis of the data found these attempts rose 73 percent between 1997 and 2017. The Emergency Taskforce sought to identify causes and solutions, and empowered a working group of academic and practicing experts led by the AAP Pediatrics study’s lead author, Dr. Michael A. Lindsey, Executive Director of the NYU McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research.

Though the Taskforce report focused on Black youth, this legislation will benefit all youth.

The Pursuing Equity in Mental Health Act would authorize $995 million in grants and other funding to support research, improve the pipeline of culturally competent providers, build outreach programs that reduce stigma, and develop a training program for providers to effectively manage disparities. It includes:  

  • Authorize $750 million annually for 5 years for the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities

  • Authorize $150 million annually over 5 years for the National Institute of Health to build relations with communities and support clinical research, including on racial or ethnic disparities in physical and mental health 

  • Authorize $15 million annually over 5 years for the Department of Health and Human Services to develop an outreach and education strategy to promote behavioral and mental health and reduce stigma associated with mental health conditions and substance abuse among minority groups

  • Updates the Primary and Behavioral Health Care Grant Program to ensure that special consideration is given to serving a high proportion of racial and ethnic minority groups. This program will also be reauthorized from fiscal year 2024 through 2029 at $80 million annually.

  • Amends Section 597 of the Public Health Service Act to allow funds to be used to promote best practices or core competencies addressing mental health disparities among racial and ethnic minority groups for training students in the behavioral health field. 

  • Directs the National Institutes of Health to enter into an arrangement with the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine or another body to study mental health disparities in racial and ethnic minority groups and submit the result to Congress


“The crisis of climbing youth suicide rates existed before the onset of the COVID-19 crisis but has no doubt intensified as so many minority youth have lost friends and family members as the coronavirus has decimated their communities,” said Rep. Watson Coleman. “We have an opportunity, right now, to address this crisis and get a generation of young people the help they need.”

“The mental health crisis facing our country is one of the biggest challenges we must confront. Unmet mental health needs jeopardize the future of our young people, particularly in minority communities. Providing equity in mental health care access and reducing disparities among racial and ethnic minority groups is critical to how we confront this issue and build stronger, healthier individuals and communities,” said Sen. Menendez. “This legislation is a positive step to ensure that public health agencies prioritize issues of mental health and suicide, especially in communities with high populations of people of color who continue to bear the disproportionate brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is my sincere hope that together, with colleagues on both sides of the aisle, we can finally address this racial inequity in our mental health care system.”

“Because of stigma and long-standing health disparities, mental health remains underfunded and misunderstood, disproportionately affecting millions in communities of color,” said Rep. Napolitano. “As our nation confronts this mental health crisis, worsened by the pandemic, it is absolutely critical that we invest greater mental health resources in underserved communities to achieve equity and reach all in need. I commend Congresswoman Watson Coleman for leading this legislation to elevate the topic of mental health, provide vital funding for long-term solutions for America’s communities of color, and help save lives.”

The Pursuing Equity in Mental Health Act is supported the Mental Health Liaison Group and by the following organizations: American Association for Psychoanalysis in Clinical Social Work, American Association on Health and Disability, American Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, American Association of Nurse Anesthesiology, American Association of Psychiatric Pharmacists, American Counseling Association, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, American Mental Health Counselors Association, American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, American Society of Addiction Medicine, Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Association of Maternal & Child Health Programs, Children's Hospital Association, Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder, Crisis Text Line, First Focus Campaign for Children, Fountain House, International OCD Foundation, International Society for Psychiatric Nurses, Inseparable, Lakeshore Foundation, Legal Action Center, Maternal Mental Health Leadership Alliance, Mental Health America, NAADAC, the Association for Addiction Professionals, National Alliance on Mental Illness, National Association for Behavioral Health and Wellness, National Association for Children's Behavioral Health, National Association of County and Behavioral Health and Disability Directors, National Association of Social Workers, National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, National Federation of Families, National Eating Disorders Association, Policy Center for Maternal Mental Health, Psychotherapy Action Network, Sandy Hook Promise, Promly, School Social Work Association of America, SMART Recovery, The National Alliance to Advance Adolescent Health, The Kennedy Forum, The Trevor Project, The Jed Foundation, The Mental Wealth Alliance, Vibrant Emotional Health, and National Black Justice Coalition.

“Research shows that the nation's growing mental health crisis has impacted communities of color especially hard,” said Dr. Michael A. Lindsey, Dean of the NYU Silver School of Social Work and Paulette Goddard Professor of Social Work and former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus’s Emergency Taskforce on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health’s working group. “The provisions of the Pursuing Equity in Mental Health Act are needed more than ever, to fund resources for the mental health needs of hard-hit communities, as well as to enable more clinical research and interventions. We are grateful to Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, the bill’s co-sponsors and the Congressional Black Caucus for taking action to save lives."

"The American Psychological Association commends Representative Bonnie Watson Coleman for her commitment to addressing longstanding mental health inequities affecting communities of color,” said Arthur C. Evans Jr., Ph.D., CEO of the American Psychological Association. “The breadth of these disparities, fueled by social drivers of health, can be addressed by supporting research and increasing funding for culturally and language-appropriate interventions. APA calls on Congress to enact the Pursuing Equity in Mental Health Act to help provide equitable access to treatment needed to stem our nation’s mental health crisis.”

"Our youth, particularly Black youth and other youth of color, are experiencing a mental health crisis. Congress must continue to prioritize youth mental health and funding for mental health programs," said American Psychiatric Association CEO and Medical Director Saul Levin, M.D., M.P.A. "The APA strongly supports the bipartisan Pursuing Equity in Mental Health Act, which would authorize funding to support and train a culturally competent healthcare workforce to address healthcare disparities. Further, the Act promotes efforts to integrate mental health and primary care and ensure underserved populations can access the care they need across the health care systems."

“Suicide is a public health issue that can impact anyone, but mental health care disparities leave certain racial and ethnic groups at increased risk,”  said Laurel Stine, J.D., M.A., Executive Vice President and Chief Policy Officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “For example, Black youth and non-Hispanic American Indian/Alaskan Natives see higher rates of suicide when compared with the national averages. The Pursuing Equity in Mental Health Act will provide critical investments in education, training, and research to address the increase in suicide among at-risk populations. AFSP is grateful to Representative Watson Coleman, Representative Napolitano, and Senator Menendez for introducing this important legislation.”

"Trauma as a result of racism and other adverse experiences is directly related to mental health outcomes,” said Schroeder Stribling, CEO of Mental Health America. “Mental Health America supports the Pursuing Equity in Mental Health Act because it directs necessary resources for researching and addressing trauma, emotional disturbances, and mental health conditions in children who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), and creates a pipeline of mental health professionals to provide more culturally responsive care."

“Youth of color face disproportionate challenges when attempting to access mental health resources due to long-standing underinvestment and underrepresentation," said Zainab Okolo, Senior Vice President of Policy, Advocacy & Government Relations for The Jed Foundation. "The reintroduction of this proposed legislation will allow for renewed investment in our most vulnerable communities by ensuring equity is centered in both the planning and protection of mental health for all young people nationwide.”

“We applaud the reintroduction of Pursuing Equity in Mental Health Act during Mental Health Awareness Month. This bill will provide critical funding for research, training, and outreach to support youth mental health and suicide prevention, especially for youth of color as disparities continue to rise” said Mark Barden co-founder and CEO of the Sandy Hook Promise Action Fund and father of Daniel who was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy. “This legislation will save lives. With suicide continuing to be the second leading cause of death for young people, we owe it to our children to address the inequities to accessing mental health support now."

“Vibrant is grateful for Rep. Watson Coleman, Rep. Napolitano and Senator Menendez’s vision and leadership in the introduction of the Pursuing Equity in Mental Health Act,” said Kimberly Williams, President and CEO at Vibrant Emotional Health. “We are pleased to endorse the Pursuing Equity in Mental Health Act, as it is a first step in addressing disparities in access, care and study of mental health issues among people of color. Importantly, the legislation authorizes funding for outreach and education, a critical step in breaking down barriers.”

To address suicide and other mental health disparities among Black queer and transgender youth, we must invest resources in the mental health programs and organizations with a track record of success in engaging, treating, and healing them within the context of their lived experiences,” said Victoria Kirby York, MPA, Director of Public Policy and Programs at the National Black Justice Coalition. “Organizations with cultural competence and expertise at the intersection of race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and sex characteristics must receive a disproportionate share of funding if they are going to reduce and prevent the disproportionate impact on these communities. The National Black Justice Coalition supports Rep. Watson Coleman's Pursuing Equity in Mental Health Equity Act because it would spend taxpayer money exactly where it's needed most.”

"We have an escalating mental health crisis among our nation’s children and youth, but children and youth of color are suffering at much higher rates," said Bruce Lesley, President of First Focus Campaign for Children. "We must do a better job with outreach and education efforts so youth of color know where to turn when they need help.  When they do seek help, they should find health care teams that understand their unique needs and provide treatment in a culturally competent manner.  We are pleased to endorse  the Pursuing Equity in Mental Health Act and urge Congress to pass it without delay."

"Crisis Text Line enthusiastically supports the Pursuing Equity in Mental Health Act, which aims to address disparities among communities of color in access to vital mental health services," said Courtney Gallo Hunter, VP of Public Policy at the Crisis Text Line. "With alarming growth in rates of suicide among Black youth, this legislation will have a measurable impact in reducing stigma and improving access to culturally competent support."

"Systemic Racism impacts Black mental health. Our community needs more funding for research, and culturally competent mental health resources,” said Jasmin Pierre, mental health advocate and creator of the minority mental health app The Safe Place. “Our Black youth are currently suffering because of the lack of support and resources. I truly hope this Bill will be highly considered"

“Having watched the suicide and teen mental health crisis unfold over 20 years, with such little access to quality treatment, we need to do better now,” said Jen Libby, teen therapist and founder of Promly. “I’m grateful to Congresswoman Watson Coleman for continuing to fight for the next generation - knowing that mental health equity means hope for the future.” 

The Pursuing Equity in Mental Health Act is cosponsored by Reps. Grace Napolitano (CA-31), Nanette Barragan (CA-44), Shontel Brown (OH-11), Nikki Budzinski (IL-13), Troy Carter (LA-02), Jasmine Crockett (TX-30), Madeleine Dean (PA-04), Veronica Escobar (TX-16), Valerie Foushee (NC-04), Elanor Holmes Norton (DC-At Large), Hank Johnson (GA-04), Sydney Kamlager-Dove (CA-37), Andy Kim (NJ-03), Barbara Lee (CA-12), Seth Magaziner (RI-02), Gwen Moore (WI-04), Ilhan Omar (MN-05), Donald Payne, Jr. (NJ-10), Ayanna Pressley (MA-07), Mary Gay Scanlon (PA-05), Shri Thanedar (MI-13), Paul Tonko (NY-20), David Trone (MD-06), Frederica Wilson (FL-24).

Senate cosponsors include: Booker (NJ), Carper (DE), Padilla (CA), Stabenow (MI), Smith (MN), Blumenthal (CT) and Warren (MA). 

Click here to read the bill text.