‘It’s not a red state, blue state thing’: Senators form bipartisan Mental Health Caucus

WASHINGTON — Sens. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., and Thom Tillis, R-N.C., don’t have much in common. They hail from opposite areas of the country, they sit on opposite sides of the aisle, and their paths to Washington couldn’t have been more different.

Outside of their mutual love for dogs, Padilla and Tillis bonded over something else: their experiences caring for loved ones undergoing mental health crises. Their conversations transformed into action when, a few months later, they launched a caucus that, for the first time, would focus solely on the issue.

“First of all, we’re talking — and it’s something that doesn’t happen enough in America and society in general when it comes to mental health,” Padilla said in an interview on Capitol Hill. “It’s not a red state, blue state thing.”

But it is a personal thing. 

Padilla’s wife, Angela, spent her life taking care of her mother, who has been diagnosed with manic-depressive disorder and schizoaffective disorder. Angela has dedicated her career to mental health advocacy, and when she met her husband, she brought it up on their first date.

“And she began to share stories about where her experience was — being not just her mother’s daughter but her advocate and caretaker,” Padilla said. “As severe as that diagnosis is, you know, the family has really rallied around her. She’s got her network of friends and support, and we’re all insistent on keeping those doctor’s appointments, staying on top of the medications. And as a result, she’s actually led a pretty fulfilling life.”

Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., at a hearing Sept. 6.Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call via AP file

Tillis, too, is familiar with taking care of family members with mental health conditions; a grandmother developed Alzheimer’s at an early age, and he wanted to learn as much as he could about it.

It wasn’t until 20 years later that he faced a crisis of his own, when medication caused him to experience manic behavior and depression for several months.

“I got a glimpse of what it feels like to be bipolar. I got a glimpse of what it feels like to have people who really did want to help you not be very helpful,” he said. “And so those experiences convinced me that we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

The U.S. is in a mental health crisis, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the country’s largest grassroots mental health organization, which has partnered with the new Senate caucus.

One in 5 adults experience mental illness every year, and by age 14, half of all lifetime mental illnesses will have begun, the nonprofit organization has found. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among 10- to 14-year-olds, behind traffic accidents and accidental injuries.

“In the last few years, we have seen a massive increase in what people need. There’s so many more people who are recognizing that they’re struggling with their mental health, and there’s so many more people who are having those symptoms of mental health conditions,” NAMI’s chief advocacy officer, Hannah Wesolowki, said in an interview.

The caucus, consisting of Padilla, Tillis, Tina Smith, D-Minn., and Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, features members who have been outspoken about their personal experiences. 

“When I was in college and then again when I was a young mom, I struggled with depression,” Smith said.

Four years ago during her maiden speech on the Senate floor, Smith opened up about her mental health story, which she described at the time as “the story of millions of Americans.”

Tina Smith with her family.
Tina Smith with her family.Courtesy Sen. Tina Smith

“I realized that there’s a lot of power and people who are powerful and by all appearances have everything all together in their lives to be able to be really direct about some of the challenges that we faced,” Smith said in an interview this month.

Ernst has passed legislation that expanded access to mental health care for rural communities and veterans after she disclosed her own trauma of having undergone years of mental and physical abuse at the hands of her ex-husband. 

“His anger and strength were too much for me. Dizzy and caught off guard, I was unable to fight. My throat was closed and I couldn’t scream,” Ernst wrote in her memoir, “Daughter of the Heartland,” in 2020, in which she painfully detailed her abuse. “I honest to God thought he was going to kill me.”

Wesolowski said that for ordinary people, seeing politicians discuss their own mental health experiences would help erode some of the stigma that has plagued the issue for decades.

“It wasn’t that long ago that having a mental illness and talking about it would be a career ender for a politician,” she said. “And now to see the senators open up, share their experience and normalize mental health as health is a game changer.”

The House has had a mental health caucus since 2020, and current membership stands at 105 lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. The senators said they hope that one day people will regard their mental health the same way they do their physical health.

“Once upon a time people were very scared to share a diabetes diagnosis,” Padilla said. “Once upon a time, not too long ago, women would fear sharing publicly that they had breast cancer.

“So I’m eager for the day where talking about mental health is a normal conversation,” he said.

As part of its initial actions, the caucus will first work to use funds already appropriated as part of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which was signed into law last year after the mass school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, and to ensure that states and local governments fully understand the scope of resources at their disposal. 

The Department of Health and Human Services awarded $245 million to fund mental health services allocated in the legislation, which is the biggest investment in history to address mental health. Nearly $60 million of it is directed toward mental health awareness training for school personnel, emergency first responders, law enforcement officials and others. 

“One thing we have to do is put our foot on the accelerator of the implementation of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act,” Tillis said. “It will have a sea-change impact on the states that do it aggressively and implement all of it.”

Padilla signaled that proper implementation of the funds would have the most significant short-term impact on people.

“I think there’s going to be plenty to talk about in the interim and the long term. Short-term, we have a tremendous opportunity with the resources made available in the Safer Communities Act,” he said. “Let’s make sure that money has been spent effectively and quickly.”

As for how the lawmakers deal with keeping their own mental wellness in check, they acknowledged that it’s an active effort to set boundaries on the chaotic, partisan environment in Washington and their personal lives back home. 

“For me, my first call every morning and my last phone call every night is to my wife, Angela,” Padilla said. “So the frame of family, my children, helps level-set why I do what I do to meet the tremendous list of priorities, what’s important, and how to cope with some of the nonsense that comes in the course of what we do.”

Sworn into the Senate by his predecessor, Vice President Kamala Harris, on Jan. 20, 2021, Padilla wasn’t in the Capitol when rioters stormed the complex in an attempt to disrupt Congress from certifying the 2020 election results. But he is keenly aware that the trauma of that day, amid a pandemic, directly affected lawmakers, staff members, first responders and members of the media.

“Think what you want about that particular day — it’s just maybe an extreme example, but one of many examples of even this institution is not immune to challenges, traumatic events and the need to be able to develop those coping mechanisms because we have a lot of important work to do,” he said.

Tillis, who said he was the last member to leave the Senate floor when insurrectionists approached on Jan. 6, 2021 , said he saw a lot of horrors unfold: “My coping mechanism — I look at that day, it was a horrible day that should have never happened. But our democratic institutions held, and we got our job [to certify the election] done.

“I’ve just been blessed with the ability to flip a switch the minute I leave this building,” Tillis said. “I literally do not think about the goings-on of the day the minute I leave here until I come back.” 

 

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