New Coalition Pushes 2020 Candidates to Prioritize Mental Health

Alicia Ault

June 13, 2019

Mental health professionals and organizations have come together in a new coalition to pressure 2020 candidates to commit to policies that will improve mental health in the United States.

Led by former US Rep. Patrick Kennedy, a Democrat from Massachusetts, the coalition, known as Mental Health for US, has adopted a platform consisting of policies that address mental illness prevention, access to care, intervention, and recovery.

"Nationwide, families are being ripped apart by deaths of despair from suicides and overdoses," said former US Rep. Patrick Kennedy, a Democrat from Massachusetts.

"This election cycle, as all eyes are on policymakers, we want to unite the American people in demanding legislative action from our government to adequately address the worst public health crisis of our time," said Kennedy, co-chair of Mental Health for US, in a statement.

Kennedy's co-chair, former US Sen. Gordon H. Smith (R-OR), noted that suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in America.

"The suicide rate has skyrocketed over the past 20 years because mental health and substance use disorders often go undetected and undertreated," he said in a statement. "Now more than ever, we need our government leaders to stand up and champion systemic change. We have to make our voices heard," he said.

Good Lead Time

Joe Pyle, president of coalition participant the Thomas Scattergood Behavioral Health Foundation, said the hope is that by beginning advocacy early in the election cycle, the coalition will have the greatest impact.

"We've got good lead time to really ask every candidate what's their view on prevention, intervention, and recovery," Pyle told Medscape Medical News.

The coalition, led by the Kennedy Forum, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the Jed Foundation, Mental Health America, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the National Council for Behavioral Health, One Mind, and the Scattergood Foundation, also hopes to get its platform, or parts of it, adopted into the official Republican and Democratic platforms.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) is not participating in, and would not comment on, the new coalition. However, an APA spokesperson noted that the APA has fought for parity in health insurance coverage — putting physical and mental health benefits at the same level, as required by a 2008 federal law, for many years.

The APA recently endorsed the Mental Health Parity Compliance Act, a bipartisan bill designed to increase the transparency and accountability of insurers' coverage of mental health and substance use benefits.

People with mental health problems or substance use disorders continue to face prejudice and discrimination, said Pyle, adding that stigma has kept the issues out of the national conversation.

The hope is that "when candidates think about healthcare, they understand that mental health is part of healthcare," Pyle said.

Getting Mental Health on the Ballot

The coalition is asking voters to join its effort, share their stories, and appear at rallies aimed at getting candidates' attention. Two such events will take place in Iowa and New Hampshire later in 2020.

In addition, the coalition will ask candidates who are drawing at least 1% of the vote to respond to a series of questions on how they will address substance use, mental health, and suicide prevention.

Candidates' responses will be published, verbatim, on the coalition's website in real time. This process should start in September, said a coalition spokesperson.

The Kennedy Forum, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Kaiser Permanente, and Janssen Neuroscience are providing initial funding for the coalition.

The coalition comprises multiple organizations, including Active Minds; Advocates for Opioid Recovery; the Anxiety and Depression Association of America; Black Girls Smile; the Black Mental Health Alliance; Bring Change to Mind; the Center on Addiction + Partnership for Drug-Free Kids; the Child Mind Institute; Columbia University Department of Psychiatry; Dil to Dil: Heart to Heart; the DMAX Foundation; Peg's Foundation; Psych Hub; Project HEAL; Shatterproof; the Stephanie Becker Fund; and the Voices Project.

Pyle said the Scattergood Foundation — named for a Quaker and devoted to promoting policy solutions in mental health and substance use disorders — aims to stay in the coalition after the 2020 race is decided.

"We hope that candidates will add mental health and substance use disorders to their platforms, but then we have to build accountability post election," he said.

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