U.S. Senator Ben Cardin

Letters From Ben


National 9-8-8

Dear Fellow Marylanders,

This week, I spent time in Montgomery County with U.S. Secretary for Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra, Congressman David Trone and Senator Chris Van Hollen talking about mental health and substance use disorders. It was an important conversation about a topic that too often is left in the shadows. We are taking important steps to change this.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen the devastating toll that the isolation and stress took on our communities. In February 2021, 39.1 percent of adults in Maryland – nearly 4 in 10 – reported symptoms of anxiety or depression.

The pandemic deepened a crisis that started to build long before COVID-19 had been identified.

Mental health issues are not new and, if you are experiencing symptoms, please know that you are not alone. Across the country, 1 in 5 adults experiences mental illness each year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Among youths aged 6-17, the number is 1 in 6. Research shows that 50 percent of lifetime mental illness begins at age 14 – and 75 percent has started by age 24.

Most conversations about mental health begin with how we might overcome the stigma associated with mental health challenges so many Americans face. Mental illnesses are too often brushed aside or outright excluded from coverage. Access to care can be difficult. Yet, like physical health, ignoring symptoms and self-medicating can lead to deeper problems.

Last year alone, nearly 3,000 Marylanders died from a drug overdose and another 650 lost their lives to suicide. Nationwide, overdose deaths in 2021 were a record 107,622 – a 15 percent increase over 2020. Suicide was the second-leading cause of death for those aged 10-34.

Thankfully, Congress is talking publicly about mental illness, and we’ve taken action to provide a literal lifeline to connect those in need with care. In 2020, Congress passed the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act, legislation I co-sponsored, which authorized a new, three digit dialing code, 988, for suicide and mental health crisis support. The shift to the new 988 crisis hotline on July 16, 2022 marks a significant step forward in our transition to a crisis care system for mental health.

I am extremely proud of the partnerships between state and local governments and organizations across the country that came together to increase call support capacity to make this service a reality and ensure callers can be connected to local support services.

The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, is a network of over 200 state and local call centers and has been proven to be effective. Switching to an easy-to-remember number will make it easier for individuals in crisis to access the help they need and decrease the stigma surrounding suicide and mental health and substance use issues. The 988 code is designed to route callers to local support through calls, texts, or chats.

While the call volume is expected to increase through the implementation of the 988 hotline — it was up 50 percent in the first week — there is federal help available. In Maryland, the Department of Health received almost $2 million as part of FY22 cooperative agreements for states and territories to build local 988 capacity ahead of the launch. Earlier this year, Congress passed the Bipartisan Safe Communities Act, which included $150 million in funding to provide additional support for the implementation of the 988 crisis lifeline. In addition, the bill included funding to expand certified community behavioral health clinics (CCBHCs), which will be essential as we look to build up our mental health care capacity. I am also working to ensure the continued access to mental health providers via telehealth.

The more we can talk publicly about mental illness and substance use, the more likely someone in need will reach out for help. This will be a lifeline for those otherwise unable to connect with help at their darkest times. Reliable, quality assistance should and must be readily available for those seeking it.

While there is more work to be done to grow our health workforce, and to integrate mental health and primary care, the launch of 988 is an important step in providing easy access to mental health resources.

As I told HHS Secretary Becerra during this week’s meeting, every investment we make to expand mental health resources is a wise investment. Few things can help improve the lives of Marylanders – and their friends, family members, and loved ones – as the empathy, support, and counseling it makes available. And few other investments can so positively affect our physical health as well.

I will continue to fight at every possible opportunity to expand access to mental health care, and I hope you will support these efforts at every possible juncture, too. For many, the first step toward wellness is to speak openly and honestly about their challenges with someone they trust. And you can be that person.

Please stay safe.


Ben Cardin