As the current candidates for president discuss hot-button issues with each news cycle, and the 10 Democrats debate on Thursday, one issue that isn’t getting the attention it deserves is the mental health crisis that is claiming more than 150,000 lives a year through suicides and overdoses and creating a vast ripple effect of suffering among their survivors.
This crisis is fueled by a health care system that is ill-equipped to handle mental health and substance use disorders, and magnified by leaders who lack the political will to turn words into action.
Rates of depression and anxiety, especially among young people, are higher than at any other point in history. Stigma certainly plays a role in people not getting the help they need, but access to care is often the deciding factor in whether someone has a shot at recovery. Many people can’t afford treatment due to inadequate insurance coverage and others — especially those in rural areas — often have to wait months to see a provider, if there’s even one available. How many red flags do we need to finally prioritize mental health and addiction prevention and treatment in this country?
That’s why Mental Health for US, a nonpartisan coalition of more than 50 members that we co-chair, asked leading presidential candidates to share their thoughts on critical topics around mental health and addiction in the U.S. The survey, sent in July 2019 to candidates averaging at or above 1% in national polls tracked by RealClearPolitics, asked 11 unbiased questions focused on suicide and drug overdose, criminal justice reform, access to mental health care, and more.
Of the 13 presidential candidates invited to complete the survey, seven have responded so far: Sen. Cory Booker, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. All provided thoughtful, solution-oriented approaches to addressing our mental health crisis and suggested policies and actions to improve access to mental health care.
It’s no surprise that plans and focus areas varied. Booker’s responses were geared toward issues such as gun reform, criminal justice reform, and expanding access to care, while Klobuchar’s responses focused more on prevention and intervention strategies that address mental health and addiction as illnesses of the brain instead of as moral failings. Warren’s responses focused on improving and expanding existing programs to address the whole continuum of care, and Harris’ responses were interested in removing barriers through telehealth to provide access to care in settings that work for Americans.
Although multiple respondents mentioned “Medicare for All” options as solutions to increasing access to care in rural and underserved populations, Sanders used it as the primary avenue to expand treatment services. And while Buttigieg echoed the sentiments of other respondents, his responses were grounded in the importance of community and the need to overcome stigma as a barrier to care. O’Rourke’s responses particularly focused on the rising suicide rates and kept veterans and the Veterans Health Administration top of mind when addressing deaths of despair.
Each respondent expressed support for expanding and protecting mental health care services for youths, veterans, racial and ethnic minorities, and other underserved populations. Some actions were proposed by all of the respondents, such as holding pharmaceutical companies responsible for the opioid epidemic, expanding resources for teens and youth, and decriminalizing (to varying degrees) mental health and addiction.
You can read each candidate’s complete response here.
As former legislators and as Americans with firsthand experience of the toll that mental health and addiction can take on individuals, families, and communities, we are pleased that seven presidential candidates took the time to respond and get their plans in front of voters. But the conversation can’t end here. We encourage all policymakers and candidates to view the Mental Health for US policy platform and see what Americans agree are solutions to confronting head on our mental health crisis.
While the president alone cannot solve this public health crisis, he or she can lead and shape policy conversations with the power to change our current trajectory. We need real, concrete solutions from candidates and elected officials, not lip service. The 57.8 million Americans living with mental health and substance-use disorders, as well as their friends, families, neighbors, educators, and employers, need action.
Candidates and policymakers can and should proactively propose their own plans; campaign on these issues using accurate, nonstigmatizing, and productive language; and most importantly, listen to the millions of Americans either directly or indirectly affected by mental illness and addiction, all of whom deserve to be heard.
Patrick J. Kennedy, the former Democratic U.S. representative from Rhode Island, is the founder of The Kennedy Forum and DontDenyMe.org; co-founder of One Mind; and author of the New York Times bestseller “A Common Struggle: A Personal Journey Through the Past and Future of Mental Illness and Addiction” (Blue Rider Press, 2016). Gordon H. Smith, a former Republican U.S. senator from Oregon, is president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters. He is the author of “Remembering Garrett: One Family’s Battle with a Child’s Depression” (Basic Books, 2007). Kennedy and Smith are co-chairs of the Mental Health for US coalition.