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Mental health in the 2020 presidential election

Jagz Mario

You’ve probably heard that there’s a presidential election coming up in 2020. Candidates are campaigning -- calling out their opponents and sharing their platform -- but do any of those platforms address the mental health concerns of our country?

It’s no doubt that the opioid crisis will come up, as will health care, and conditions at immigration detention facilities. For the latest in health this time on “Take Care,” we ask if mental health is an issue driving voters to the polls this time around.

Alicia Ault is a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post and other publications. She’s currently a contributing writer for Smithsonian.com and Medscape Medical News.

We started our conversation discussing Mental Health for US -- a new nonprofit initiative aimed at elevating mental health policy.

“They decided to launch now because they wanted to get in early on the election cycle and not get left behind,” Ault said. “The idea is by all of these disparate organizations joining together they have more power than a single organization trying to push the candidate.”

The initiative is a coalition of various mental health groups. Most of them are consumer advocates.

“The profession societies haven’t really participated in Mental Health for US, at least not as of yet. And those professional groups do tend to have a lot of clout in Washington and with candidates,” Ault said. “So this is more of kind of a grassroots organization.”

The group is focused on the presidential election and plans to hold rallies in conjunction with candidate appearances.

“I think eventually they’re hoping that if they have some sort of success that maybe they’ll take it down to the state level.” Ault said.

People have been advocating for better mental health policy for decades, so while Mental Health for US is new, the group’s wish list is not.

“They’re looking for legislation that can help address prevention, treatment and recovery services for people with substance use disorders,” Ault said. “They’re looking to get policies change. They’re looking for more money. They’re looking to reduce stigma, which is not something you can do through legislation, but just by bringing attention to the issue.”

There are a couple of factors bringing mental health closer to the forefront this election cycle -- substance abuse and suicide.

“Suicides have been on the increase, which is very alarming. And you have that intertwined with the opioid crisis,” Ault said. “With so much attention being paid to the opioid epidemic in the last few years, I think that gives mental health advocates some leverage to get policy makers to pay more attention the larger issue.”

As we head into the election cycle, a few things remain true: Spending more money on health care is not a priority for many Republicans, while historically health care is an important issue to most Democrats.

“So when you sort of drill down into what do they care about in health care, it’s interesting. Mental health does not come up really that much in the polls,” Ault said. “The opioid epidemic does, but mental health as an issue doesn’t poll that highly.”

The reason why mental health may not poll that highly is also one of the biggest reasons why it’s an issue to begin with, according to Ault.

“People are afraid to talk about it … There’s still so much stigma attached to the issue that it kind of becomes invisible.”

Another issue, parity between mental and physical health, is a big rallying cry. Ault said that’s mainly because it is something that can be changed with legislation.

“It’s still considered a huge issue. In fact, United Healthcare, which is one of the biggest health insurers in the U.S., was sued. They’re the subjects of a class action suit and the plaintiffs have alleged that United is doing everything in its power to deny people proper mental health care. And a judge actually ruled against the insurance company in March.”

At this point in time, candidates don’t seem to be taking on mental health issues directly. It’s still early in the election season with just a few candidates mentioning the opioid crisis and mental health as they develop their platforms.

“I think it sort of takes a back set a to what they are pushing as their signature agenda, which is whether or not to expand Medicare to everyone,” Ault said. “So mental health gets buried in there.”

Whether or not candidates take a stand when it comes to mental health policy or live up to the expectations of Mental Health for US, Ault believes mental health will continue to be a big issue in this country.

“When you have suicides, drug overdoses, alcohol poisonings … you’re talking about 110,000 people a year dying from mental health conditions that could be treated and aren’t being treated,” she said.