Black Voters Must Make Mental Health Part of This Year's Election Cycle
Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor
One hundred three days from today, American voters will select the next President of the United States. Whoever that person turns out to be, Black Americans need to make sure that mental health will be a national priority.
During the run-up to both party national conventions, committees attempt to solidify and clarify the party’s platform, which is a set of beliefs, core values, and resulting policy and governing priorities that will guide the work of political office-holders for upcoming terms. This year’s platforms for both Democrats and Republicans reflect traditional mainstays of the collective party voice as well as new topics that mirror hot-button social issues like police violence against civilians, criminal justice reform, and gun violence. Though the Democratic party platform certainly gets a better grade than the Republicans for specifically including mental health as bold-letter, heading-level priorities, both parties need to be held much more accountable by the black community to raise the consciousness level within their organizations of the importance of national attention and actionable policy on specific mental health concerns.
Perhaps the simplest, most direct and most impactful argument to be made in favor of raising the visibility of mental health issues is the undeniable interconnectedness of other party platform issues and mental and emotional health, including substance abuse and addiction. When discussing gun violence, for example, and the perpetrator is a white male, most often the search for motivation turns quickly to possible mental illness. Conversely, the motivation for black perpetrators of gun violence is reflexively attributed to some combination of bad character, general criminal proclivity, and rage. But now, in large part due to heightened awareness and dialogue around mental illness and emotional disturbance, the narrative is slowly beginning to include questions of mental health stability even for black gunmen.
Equality and civil rights figure prominently in the Democrats’ platform; in a much more implicit way in the Republicans’ platform. Discrimination and inequality across the spectrum of social engagement requires not only policy efforts targeted to availability of affordable and safe housing, equitable access to quality education and job opportunities; enacted legislation and executive orders must include funding for mental health services for individual victims and disenfranchised groups to diagnose and treat mental health conditions arising from such discrimination and bias. Research studies have examined the effects of discrimination on mental and physical health of African Americans. Despite questions regarding methodologies used to measure and/or define discrimination and accounting for how different people might perceive bias, research consistently shows mental health effects from racial inequality, including depression and anxiety.
The Republican Party 2016 platform focuses on structure and infrastructure of the healthcare system and addresses issues such as: patient/doctor relationship, state control of local insurance markets; patient choice and portability of policies and coverage; and access to high quality healthcare, “including those struggling with mental illness.” The black community stands to gain by putting pressure on Republicans up and down the ballots to specifically identify policy initiatives and to craft value statements that demonstrate a commitment to providing preventive and recovery services, aiding families with children with mental illness diagnoses, and funding innovative non-traditional treatment methods.
The Democratic Party platform is more specific than that of the Republicans, but there is still room for improvement. Its stated priorities are substance abuse and addiction, particularly opioid addiction. The following are also listed as areas of focus:
Removing barriers to recovery, including addressing unemployment, lack of housing, and inequities in education;
Mental health parity, particularly implementing provisions of the Mental Health Parity and Addictions Equity Act of 2008;
Drug abuse prevention;
Integration of mental and behavioral health systems;
Access for children to mental health services;
Community-based treatment for mental health conditions and drug abuse/addiction;
These points represent a solid agenda for mental health that African Americans can contextualize to address other points in the platform like education and violence. Voters should be prepared to bring up these issues at upcoming town halls; black journalists should be asking questions on these issues during debates and candidate forums; black organizations should prepare talking points and candidate scorecards that can be used to evaluate the records of incumbents and challengers.