By Garen Staglin and Patrick J. Kennedy
The compounding crises of 2020 have worsened existing challenges faced by tens of thousands who suffer from mental health and addiction challenges. Isolation, anxiety, and stress stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic; soaring unemployment and loss of health care; and recurring instances of violence against Black Americans have all contributed to significant increases in suicide and overdose deaths this year. While there were clear warning signs of their psychological impact early on, preliminary efforts to address mental health and addiction have proven to be largely inadequate.
The CARES Act provided the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) $450 million for COVID-19 relief for the behavioral health sector, including $250 million earmarked directly for community behavioral health organizations. However, this benefited only 113 clinics due to the eligibility requirements, leaving the rest of the nation’s 3,400 behavioral health providers, who play a crucial role in providing treatment to those with serious mental illness and substance use disorders, without any additional support to provide lifesaving interventions in the face of even greater need.
While the current state of affairs in our country is extremely concerning, this year we also have a unique opportunity to enact change: the general election.
In just three short months, we’ll have a chance to make our voices heard on a number of critical issues, including mental health and addiction. Now more than ever, our leaders must understand the complex emotional toll that the pandemic, the recession, and systemic racism have taken on Americans and take steps to address it. The 2020 election can serve as a powerful springboard for finally prioritizing mental health and addiction literacy, prevention, and treatment.
Looking for a place to start? Below are some simple steps you can take to help spark change.
- Register to vote and actually vote. It’s important you make your voice heard at every level—in presidential elections as well as state and local elections. To check your registration status, see deadlines, and locate your polling place, visit mentalhealthforus.net/voters.
- Find out where presidential candidates stand on mental health and addiction. Check to see how past and current presidential candidates have addressed these topics by visiting https://www.mentalhealthforus.net/voters/candidate-positions.
- Share credible resources to aid those who need help with mental health and addiction challenges. Visit mentalhealthforus.net/voters.
o Educate your friends and families. We know exactly what it will take to improve the state of mental health and addiction care in our country—now we need our leaders to get it done. Talk to your loved ones about what it will take to turn things around. The Mental Health for US policy platform is a good place to start.
- Start conversations with your colleagues and students about mental health and addiction. The Kennedy Forum has a number of resources and activities available for use in the classroom and via remote learning.
- Make sure your students understand the importance of civic engagement. Encourage them to write letters to their representatives about personal experiences and the changes they’d like to see for their generation. Even if your students aren’t old enough to vote, their voices still matter!
- Consider making Election Day a paid holiday for your employees so they have time to vote and potentially help others vote, too.
- When negotiating your health benefits, make sure your insurance provider complies with federal and state parity laws to ensure your employees will have equal coverage for mental health and addiction care.
- Share mental health and addiction resources with your staff on a regular basis to normalize the conversation and make sure they know how to access care. The Mental Health & Wellness in the Workplace Initiative from One Mind at Work, Psych Hub, and the SHRM Foundation also provides numerous educational and training materials to engage HR professionals and managers in redefining a culture of acceptance and assistance.
This year has brought on a great deal of tragedy and unrest, and there is no doubt that we face a long road to recovery. However, it is precisely because of the hardships of the year—not in spite of them—that prioritizing mental health and addiction care is more crucial than ever. We must harness the opportunity to come back stronger than we were before. Join us to take action and ensure that those elected to public office in November are empowered to treat mental health as essential health in the years ahead.
Former U.S. Rep. (D-RI) Patrick J. Kennedy is founder of The Kennedy Forum, co-founder of One Mind and co-chair of Mental Health for US.