Bernie Sanders and Seth Moulton both have plans to expand mental health services for veterans. Joe Biden wants to double the number of school mental health staff “so our kids get the mental health care they need.” Elizabeth Warren hopes to address the opioid crisis by expanding prevention efforts, treatment, and recovery services. And Amy Klobuchar just scored an endorsement from an Iowa state representative impressed with her plan to expand behavioral health facilities and boost federal funding for mental health research.
But some of the nation’s most prominent mental health organizations want more details. Now, they’re launching a new initiative to keep that conversation going — and to get leading presidential and congressional candidates on the record about their specific policy proposals and how they’d put them into action.
The new nonpartisan group, called Mental Health for US, aims to push candidates in both parties to be more vocal about their policy ideas to improve mental health care — particularly as the 2020 election increasingly centers on health care issues like expanding Medicare or lowering the price of prescription drugs. It’s the product of a collaboration between some of the nation’s most prominent mental health groups, including the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and the Jed Foundation.
“This is a formative time in policymaking in our country,” said former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), a co-chair of the new initiative, which launched Monday. “Having the advocacy community speak with one voice … that’s the best chance we have at making real progress,” he added.
Kennedy and the other advocates behind the initiative say there’s an urgent need for that progress. An estimated 47,000 Americans died by suicide in 2017, according to federal statistics. That same year, more than 70,000 people in the U.S. died of drug overdoses. Millions of people are living with mental health conditions — and experts say many still can’t access or afford the treatment they need.
“We don’t need new reports. We don’t need white papers. We need political will,” said Kennedy, who is also the founder of the Kennedy Forum.
The Kennedy Forum, which is leading the coalition, has chipped in $150,000 to further the group’s efforts. Kaiser Permanente and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention have each contributed another $100,000 to the work. Other groups are helping to develop the coalition’s resources.
The group’s policy platform is broadly focused on three areas: prevention, access and intervention, and recovery. They say policymakers need to make improvements in a range of areas, from investing more in the mental health workforce to expanding programs that provide housing and other supports for people affected by mental health conditions and substance use issues.
“Mental health and substance abuse impacts so many of their potential constituents. They need to be talking about these issues,” said John Madigan, senior vice president of public policy at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
They’re also calling for substantial increases in federal funding for research on mental health conditions, suicide prevention, more effective treatments, and better diagnostic tools.
Mental Health for US wants newly elected lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to have well-articulated policy approaches to address mental health and substance use — before their terms even start. The group is planning to press candidates to go on the record by sending out a survey to every presidential candidate polling above a certain threshold to ask about their stances on a slew of mental health and addiction policy issues.
They’ll post the responses they receive in full online, so that voters can see where the candidates fall on policy. The group wants voters to be informed about mental health and addiction policy in the election — and feel empowered to ask candidates about those issues directly at town halls and events.
“Our goal here is really to help voters raise their own voices and have their voices heard by the candidates,” said Madigan.
As the election draws closer, the group plans to host events that give people affected by mental health conditions or substance use disorders a chance to share their perspectives directly with candidates. They plan to start with events in Iowa and New Hampshire. Mental Health for US is developing tools to help voters share their perspectives on mental health during the campaign, as well as issue briefs for policymakers and organizations looking to get involved in the conversation.
Angela Kimball, acting chief executive of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said it’s critical to the group’s mission to rally support not only among voters and candidates, but also the broader mental health advocacy community. More than a dozen other mental health and substance use disorder organizations have already signed on to the coalition’s mission.
“We’ve got to galvanize our stakeholders and those who are personally affected,” she said. “We can’t just sit down and take this quietly anymore.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the titles of John Madigan and Angela Kimball.