Struggles with mental health and addiction are climbing to unprecedented levels amid the COVID-19 pandemic. With increased isolation due to virus safety protocols and anxiety over a deadly disease compounded by skyrocketing unemployment, the mental health and addiction treatment infrastructure has been tested and forced to innovate on the fly with technologies like telehealth. Thus, as we wait for vaccines to be distributed over the next year, it is more important than ever to ensure that legislators understand the gravity of the crises facing their constituents.
In more than 300 hours of research, we’re pleased to discover congressional freshmen on both sides of the aisle expressing support for improving access to mental health and addiction services. The freshmen of this campaign cycle exemplify how mental health and addiction are not treated as siloed issues, but as topics that overlap with other vital areas of public health and service. New members of Congress see close connections in issues like mental health and criminal justice; veterans and the trauma of war; the opioid crisis and rural health; and access and parity in insurance coverage, to name a few.
As Americans continue to face COVID-19’s devastating mental health impacts, the concurrent opioid crisis and the rising prevalence of incarceration and suicide, several lawmakers have demonstrated track records in supporting local initiatives and broad policy solutions in these areas. While so few freshmen will enter the Senate this term (8), the House has more than 60 new members with diverse backgrounds and perspectives on the issues. Many members spoke about mental health on the campaign trail but we chose seven new House members who stood out on mental health and addiction in their campaigns and policy priorities.
Jerry Carl — AL-1
As Mobile County Commissioner, Carl voted to join a 2018 lawsuit against companies that make and distribute opioid pain medications. On the lawsuit, Carl said, “I own a pharmacy. […] Manufacturers and distributors who skirt the law and ignore reporting large, suspicious shipments month after month have created this problem and must be held responsible.” He also supports legislation for survivors of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to receive treatment of their choice outside the VA system.
Kahele says combating the Veteran suicide epidemic will be among his top priorities in Congress, including expanding VA services and ending the service backlog by filling numerous vacancies in the agency. Additionally, Kahele supports the appropriation of funds to establish additional post-acute care and rehabilitation centers for Veterans. As a Hawaii state senator, he sponsored legislation to ensure mental health parity and expand access to mental health resources for Hawaiian youth, mothers and inmates.
Frank J. Mrvan — IN-1
As Township Trustee at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mrvan worked to create a mental health wellness hotline to connect residents and first responders with volunteer mental health service providers for free. Mrvan has hosted NARCAN training exercises and met with a localworking group to combat the opioid epidemic in Northwest Indiana for more than two years. Additionally, Mrvan and his wife established the “No More Secrets” campaign to reach and rescue abused children after learning that Indiana has the second-highest rate of forced sexual intercourse among high school girls.
Lisa McClain — MI-10
In her home county, McClain led the formation of the Macomb District 43-1B Drug Court by founding and serving as president of North End Support Team for four years. The organization helps fund prohibitive expenses such as counseling, drug testing and transportation for drug court participants.
Andrew Garbarino — NY-2
Garbarino has been active in helping people living with opioid addiction access short-and long-term recovery options. While in the state assembly, he hosted several NARCAN training sessions and “Shed the Meds” prescription give-back days while voting to outlaw opioid treatment program co-payments and expand access to medications that treat substance use disorders. Garbarino also voted to improve the delivery of mobile mental health services in New York and determine the need for a statewide advisory council on mental health crisis response.
Ritchie Torres — NY-15
Torres has been open about living with depression, for which he has been previously hospitalized and takes antidepressants. He is among the most prominent politicians to discuss previous suicidal ideation and how depression led him to stop pursuing an undergraduate degree at NYU. Citing his best friend’s death from a drug overdose, Torres sponsored legislation as a New York City Council member to expand NARCAN training.
Troy Nehls — TX-22
As sheriff of Fort Bend County, TX, Nehls was vocal about his community’s mental health needs, hosting a mental health summit and decrying how society often uses jails and prisons as “de facto mental health centers.” At the local level, Nehls championed mental health and addiction treatment for justice-involved individuals through diversion programs and a Crisis Intervention Team.
Other Profiles of Note for Mental Health & Addiction Advocates
Alex Padilla, Senator from California
Michelle Steel, CA-48
Byron Donalds, FL-29
Ashley Hinson, IA-1
Mariannette Miller-Meeks, IA-2
Marie Newman, IL-3
Kathy Manning, NC-6
Teresa Leger Fernandez, NM-3
Mondaire Jones, NY-17
Stephanie Bice, OK-5
Diana Harshbarger, TN-1
Burgess Owens, UT-4
Marilyn Strickland, WA-10
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