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AAP members at Advocacy Conference urge Congress to support youth mental health

May 2, 2022

This year's AAP Advocacy Conference took place as the world reflected on the two-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic: where we've been, where we are now and what we need to do to overcome it. One theme that carried throughout the conference was the vital role of pediatricians and their heroic efforts to support their communities since the beginning.

AAP tweet about Advocacy ConferenceFor the second year, the conference was held virtually, but that did not deter pediatrician advocacy. More than 400 pediatricians, pediatric medical subspecialists, pediatric surgical specialists, trainees and medical students dedicated nearly three days to developing their advocacy skills and speaking up for children. The conference was chaired by AAP Committee on Federal Government Affairs Chair Melinda A. Williams-Willingham, M.D., FAAP, and AAP Committee on State Government Affairs Chair Pam K. Shaw, M.D., FAAP.

Attendees learned how to be effective child health advocates and put those skills to the test during nearly 300 virtual meetings with congressional offices on the final day of the conference. They urged lawmakers to support child and adolescent mental and behavioral health.

Pediatricians long have been sounding the alarm on the mental health crisis, which has been exacerbated during the pandemic. The need for access to mental and behavioral health care is great, and the messages echoed by pediatricians across virtual Capitol Hill meetings aimed to further galvanize the urgency to act.

Dr. Biden: Pediatricians are more than doctors

The conference agenda was filled with speakers from the highest levels of the federal government.

During a brief address, first lady Jill Biden, Ed.D., spoke about the critical role pediatricians play in the lives of children and families and on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jill Biden at Advocacy Conference
First lady Jill Biden, Ed.D., spoke about the critical role
pediatricians play in the lives of children and families.

“Pediatricians are so much more than doctors. You're healers, teachers and counselors. You're lifelines for parents lost in worry and fear,” Dr. Biden said. “And all that has been especially true in these last two years of COVID-19.”

She also discussed her White House initiative Joining Forces as well as the Hidden Helpers Coalition, in which AAP is a formal partner. The coalition is designed to create supportive programming for and bring awareness to the 2.3 million children in military and veteran families who are caregivers for wounded, ill or injured service members or veterans.

Following Dr. Biden, attendees heard from U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra, J.D. He extended his gratitude to pediatricians for their work on numerous timely child health issues, including their extensive efforts to encourage families to vaccinate their children against COVID-19.

Rounding out the morning lineup was Michael D. Warren, M.D., M.P.H., FAAP, associate administrator of the Maternal and Child Health Bureau. Dr. Warren spoke about his own advocacy journey starting from his internship in the AAP Washington office and shared practical advice on how to approach advocacy.

“You've got this. You advocate every single day. And while the setting of your Hill visits may differ from your typical day, you will do an amazing job,” Dr. Warren said.

AAP Committee on Federal Government
Affairs Chair Melinda A. Williams-
Willingham, M.D., FAAP, and Assistant
Secretary for Health Admiral Rachel Levine,

Attendees also heard from Assistant Secretary for Health Admiral Rachel Levine, M.D., FAAP, who sat down for a conversation with Dr. Williams-Willingham. They discussed a wide range of topics, including pediatrician advocacy, the need to support transgender and gender-diverse youths, and Dr. Levine's work at HHS.

The same day, a panel of judicial advocacy experts provided a deep dive on how the courts impact child health, focusing on topics such as vaccine mandates, universal mask policies in schools, laws prohibiting gender-affirming care and reproductive health.

Supporting youth mental health

After attending sessions on child health issues and skills-building workshops, participants prepared for their virtual Hill visits.

The goal of their meetings was to ask their lawmakers to support and co-sponsor two bipartisan bills: the Supporting Children's Mental Health Care Access Act (H.R. 7076/ S.3864) and the Youth Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Act (H.R. 1803/ S.3628).

Both AAP-supported bills would address the mental health crisis young people face.

The Supporting Children's Mental Health Care Access Act would reauthorize the Pediatric Mental Health Care Access Program for five years. The program increases access to mental and behavioral health services by supporting telehealth consultation models that connect primary care providers with specialty mental and behavioral health care providers. 

The Youth Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Act would provide funding that schools can use for mental health promotion and suicide prevention, such as educational seminars, awareness campaign materials, peer-to-peer program support, telehealth and training programs.

Equipped with key messages and patient stories, conference participants attended virtual congressional meetings, including more than 40 meetings with a member of Congress in attendance. These messages also were amplified by AAP members who emailed and called their legislators the same day.

Since the conference, both bills have gained several new co-sponsors, and the Academy will continue to pursue advocacy efforts to advance this legislation through Congress.

The pediatrician voice

Throughout the pandemic, pediatricians have shed light on the child health issues they are witnessing in their clinics, hospitals and communities, and channeling those needs into opportunities for advocacy. This year's conference put that advocacy on display and provided an outlet for AAP members across the country to coalesce around a unified message shared with their members of Congress.

As AAP President Moira A. Szilagyi, M.D., Ph.D., FAAP, shared in her remarks: “We cannot turn away from the anguish we witness, because we know that in denying their humanity, we betray our own,” she said. “We cannot be silent. We must intervene.”

As is evident from this year's conference, pediatricians will continue to live up to those words — intervening and speaking up to ensure children's needs are heard by decision-makers at all levels of government.

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