In an election often dominated by worries about the economy and national security, mental health gets comparatively little exposure as a serious issue on the presidential campaign trail. In fact, during my search for information it was difficult to find clear and concise information about the candidates’ stance on mental health issues in America. During this election season, the issue of mental health services has been brought up most frequently when candidates have discussed mass shootings. Candidates on both sides of the aisle have stressed the need to prevent mentally ill people from acquiring guns. Democrats have advocated for gun control and Republicans argued that the lack of treatment for mental health issues should be blamed for mass shootings rather than the gun industry.
The heroin epidemic has provided an opportunity for candidates to link drug addiction and mental health, with candidates like Bernie Sanders arguing that the nation’s prison system must stop being used as a substitute for treatment. In addition, mental health is also commonly mentioned in regards to the Department of Veterans Affairs, with many candidates promising to reform the agency and give veterans access to proper mental health care. It is even rarer for candidates to mention mental health as its own issue, one that is not prompted by a national crisis or by a question from an audience member.
Out of all the 2016 candidates, Hillary Clinton and John Kasich are perhaps the most vocal advocates for mental health care. Clinton has called for mental health to be treated with parity to physical health issues. During the run-up to the Iowa caucus, Clinton frequently criticized the state’s Republican governor, Terry Branstad, for closing two of the state’s four mental hospitals. Kasich, who is often attacked by conservatives for expanding Medicaid in his home state of Ohio, has argued that the move helped treat the mentally ill. Bernie Sanders occasionally speaks about mental health as a part of his health care plan, and has called for a “mental health revolution,” usually in regards to making sure people are treated in light of the national conversation on mental health and guns.
Marco Rubio has talked about the stigma surrounding mental health issues when asked about it by voters. Some candidates have taken a different approach and have joked about the issue. Ted Cruz has said multiple times that he has “a lot of experience with mental health” issues because he’s dealt with Congress. One day after a man shot two journalists on live television Donald Trump said he is opposed to tightening gun laws in the U.S. but is in favor of addressing mental health to prevent shootings. Trump did not offer specific solutions to addressing the mental health problem, but said there are “so many things that can be done.”
When candidates do talk about mental health, what they say falls very clearly along party lines. Republican candidates who do address the issue tend to do so in the context of veterans affairs or to recommend institutionalizing certain mentally ill people rather than focusing on gun control. Democratic candidates who bring up mental health tend to do so in the context of reducing the flow in the prison pipeline and addressing substance use disorders. In other words and not surprisingly, mental health gets a mention where it seems to be politically expedient.
For more information, you can view each candidate’s political website.
Willingham, E. (2015, September 6).What does your 2016 Presidential Candidate Say about Mental Health? Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/emilywillingham/2015/09/06/what-does-your-2016-presidential-candidate-say-about-mental-health/#6ccc3de6884d
Witkin, R. (2016, February 24)Where the 2016 Candidates Stand on Mental Health Issues. NBCNews. Retrieved from http://www.nbcnews.com/politics/first-read/where-2016-candidates-stand-mental-health-issues-n524826
Jonathan Torres, M.S.
WKPIC Doctoral Intern