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February 17, 2022

Momentum Grows for Pressley’s Bill to Expand Mental Health Support for Survivors of Natural Disasters, Terrorist Attacks, Other Tragedies

Bill Text | Bill Summary

WASHINGTON – Momentum is growing for the Post Disaster Mental Health Response Act, bicameral legislation introduced by Rep. Ayanna Pressley (MA-07) to expand mental health supports for survivors of natural disasters and terrorist attacks that do not receive a “Major Disaster” declaration. The bill was first introduced in the House in partnership with Reps. Dina Titus (NV-01), David McKinley (WV-01) and Peter Meijer (MI-03).

Today, U.S. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) and U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), Ranking Member of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs (HSGAC), introduced the Senate companion legislation. The Post-Disaster Mental Health Response Act would expand eligibility for FEMA’s Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training Program (CCP), which provides short-term mental health resources for survivors. Currently, support through this program is only available following “Major Disaster Declarations,” but not “Emergency Declarations.”

“Natural disasters and mass violence like the Boston Marathon bombing are disruptive and traumatic life events that can have a devastating impact on one’s mental health—but far too many people who survive these tragedies can’t access the critical mental health services offered by FEMA,” said Rep. Pressley. “Our bill would help survivors of all disasters access these critical resources, and I’m glad it’s picking up steam in Congress. I’m grateful to Senators Durbin and Portman for their leadership in the Senate and for moving us closer to giving all survivors the supportive resources they need.”

“Whenever disasters occur around the country, whether storms or events like pandemics, studies have shown sharp increases in PTSD rates among both residents and first responders. The Post-Disaster Mental Health Response Act is critically important to ensure mental health services are available to all those experiencing trauma,” said Chairwoman Dina Titus.

“As someone who previously worked on disaster response efforts, I am intimately aware of the multifaceted challenges that disasters of all scales and types can have on individuals and communities,” said Rep. Meijer. “We know major disasters require physical repairs, but we must also consider the mental and emotional tolls these events have and ensure all victims and survivors have access to the resources they need to cope and hopefully recover. I am glad to join this effort to make support available in the aftermath of any FEMA-declared disaster. I’m happy to see the bill introduced in the Senate and look forward to seeing the momentum continue.”

“Natural disasters don’t just wreak physical damage, they can cause lasting emotional and mental scars for communities—like the devastation caused by the tornado that ripped through Edwardsville, Illinois,” said Senator Durbin. “Whether it’s tornadoes, wildfires, hurricanes, or mass violence, victims and first responders should be able to access the same mental health resources in the aftermath of tragedies. That’s why the bipartisan Post-Disaster Mental Health Response Act is so important—the legislation expands trauma and mental health services in the wake of disasters.”

“The survivors of catastrophic events, whether from an act of terror or extreme weather, can experience psychological harm.  Research from the National Institute of Health finds that crises counseling is an effective tool to help survivors overcome this trauma,” said Senator Portman. “Unfortunately, FEMA does not currently have the authority to reimburse states for this critical service in the aftermath of declared emergencies.  That’s why I’ve introduced the bipartisan Post Disaster Mental Health Response Act to rectify this lapse and ensure states have every tool they need to make their communities whole.”

This legislation is endorsed by National Association of EMTs, International Association of Fire Fighters, National Association of Counties, American Psychological Association, National Association of State Alcohol and Drug Abuse Directors, American Mental Wellness Association, Children’s Hospital Association, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Campaign for Trauma-Informed Policy and Practice, American College of Emergency Physicians, Iowa Primary Care Association, Gundersen Health System, Eating Disorders Coalition for Research, Policy & Action, Center for Advocacy for the Rights and Interests of the Elderly (CARIE), Inseparable, Association of Behavioral Healthcare, Center for Law and Social Policy, National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, Riverside Community Care, and Team Rubicon.

In the last decade alone, there have been more than 4,000 Emergency Declarations in 37 states and 72 percent of all Congressional districts. From hurricanes and earthquakes to terrorist attacks and other mass violence, these emergencies have led to lasting trauma for individuals, families, and communities, and significant cost burdens on states and governments tasked with rebuilding from these crises.

Through the CCP, FEMA provides technical assistance and reimbursement to states, tribes, and territories to address the mental health impacts in the aftermath of tragedies. However, CCP is only available to states, tribes, and territories that have received a “Major Disaster Declaration,” and is not available for disasters that receive “Emergency Declarations.”

To address this problem, the Post-Disaster Mental Health Response Act would amend the CCP so that it applies to Emergency Declarations. This legislation will ensure that disasters that don’t meet the physical or monetary requirements for a Major Disaster can still receive mental health support for impacted communities. For a detailed summary of the legislation, click here.

At a House Oversight Committee hearing, Rep. Pressley questioned FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell about the trauma caused by natural disasters and the need to expand eligibility for the CCP. In response to her questions, Administrator Criswell acknowledged the importance of expanding the program and committed to working with the Congresswoman to ensure more impacted communities are eligible for support through the CCP. A full transcript and video of their exchange is available here.

Throughout her career, Congresswoman Pressley has been a tireless advocate for trauma-conscious policymaking.  In June 2021, Rep. Pressley reintroduced the STRONG Support for Children Act, her landmark legislation that takes a holistic and community-based approach to addressing the growing crisis of childhood trauma.

In March 2021, Rep. Pressley sent a letter to President Biden calling on him to address the nation’s growing trauma crisis and laying out a series of steps the administration should take to confront the far-reaching hurt plaguing our communities and our nation.  In April, she published an op-ed where she reflected on the collective pain experienced by communities in her district over the past year.

In July 2019, Rep. Pressley worked with Chairman Cummings to convene the first-ever Congressional hearings on childhood trauma.  Watch Congresswoman Pressley’s full question line and follow-up questions here and here.

As a Boston City Councilor, she convened the Council’s first-ever listening-only session to hear directly from those impacted by the trauma of community gun violence.