MIDVALE — Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, said he is co-sponsoring a bill in Congress to help fill the need for more mental health workers, especially in low income, rural and other underserved areas of the state, at a time when COVID-19 is increasing demand.

Standing outside the Utah Partners for Health Midvale Clinic Tuesday morning, the freshman congressman said he’s repeatedly heard “our community and Utah families need more mental health therapists and crisis responders to help people get treatment and to save lives. The need is even greater in Utah’s underserved communities.”

McAdams said at the news conference that’s why he’s among the 34 co-sponsors of the bipartisan Mental Health Professionals Workforce Shortage Loan Repayment Act, introduced last year in the U.S. House by Rep. John Katko, R-New York.

He said the bill provides a loan forgiveness program for college students who use their degrees to work in mental health care in a high-need area for six years, removing a financial barrier that otherwise could keep them from taking those jobs.

Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, and Taryn Hiatt, Utah area director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, chat while making a short video for social media about mental health after a press conference about the bipartisan Mental Health Professionals Workforce Shortage Loan Repayment Act outside of Utah Partners for Health Midvale Clinic in Midvale on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020. The act would provide school loan forgiveness to mental and behavioral health professionals working in underserved areas in an effort to increase the number of mental health providers in low-income and rural communities. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“More mental and behavioral health workers mean better overall health for Utah families and fewer tragic suicides,” McAdams said. “We know the need for more workers is there. I saw that when I was mayor of Salt Lake County and I see it now as a member of Congress.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is adding to the pressure, he said, citing a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found that 41% of respondents reported mental health symptoms as a result of coronavirus concerns.

“As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the need for more support for our mental and behavioral services is greater than ever,” said McAdams, who was hospitalized earlier this year with the virus after becoming one of the first members of Congress to test positive for it.

A study by the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute last year showed Utah needs to double the number of mental health professionals in the state over the next 15 years to keep up with demand for care as the population grows, McAdams said.

Barbara Cryer, one of two behavioral health specialists with Utah Partners for Health, said more than half the patients seen at the community health center live in poverty. They often have to wait weeks and even months to see a mental health care provider, she said.

“It’s just the two of us. We are always back to back,” Cryer said. “That’s one of the things we’re struggling with. We need more people.”

The average person in her field, Cryer said, earns about $45,000 but, like her, has more $30,000 in student loan debt. She said the legislation will encourage more graduates to consider positions in underserved communities rather than seeking higher-paying positions.

“I really think it’s a great program. I really do,” she said, especially because of the requirement to work with an underserved community for at least six years. “That’s really going to push for those therapists to really serve their community. That’s something as social workers we should be doing anyway.”

Taryn Hiatt, the Utah area director for American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, also endorsed the effort by Congress at the news conference.

“We are desperately lacking in mental health treatment access, especially in our rural communities,” Hiatt said. In some parts of the state, people have to travel hundreds of miles to see a health care provider that may not have an available appointment for weeks.

“When I am in a mental health crisis and having thoughts of suicide, that’s the same as if I was having a heart attack. And being told I have to wait for weeks on end to be able to see somebody is just not acceptable. So we know this is an important step forward,” she said.

She, too, said the pandemic “has brought a new light to the mental health crisis in our state and in our country. People who’ve never experienced depression and anxiety are experiencing those symptoms now. The one good thing I will say that I have seen come of this is more people are reaching out.”

Hiatt said this is a nonpartisan issue.

“Mental health and suicide prevention have no party. There’s no partisanship here. This affects all of us as humans and we have to work together, regardless of how you’re affiliated,” she said, praising McAdams’ efforts, as well as those by Republicans in the Utah delegation, including Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah.

The bill was assigned to the health subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, but has yet to be heard in Congress.   

McAdams, who has worked on other measures related to suicide prevention, said state leaders, including Gov. Gary Herbert, are working on similar legislation.

“It’s promising to see more attention on this issue,” he said. “When the state and federal government come together with providers who have the expertise to address a single problem, it increases the focus and it increases the resources that are needed.”

McAdams is facing a tough reelection battle against Republican Burgess Owens in the 4th Congressional District, which includes portions of Salt Lake and Utah counties, after winning the seat in 2018 from former two-term GOP Rep. Mia Love by less than 700 votes.