I remember one of the first times I canvassed on behalf of a candidate for elected office.
If you’re not familiar with the ins-and-outs of a political campaign, one piece of a successful operation is contacting potential voters directly. If you’ve ever received a phone call or text message from a campaign volunteer before, that’s part of it. And before the ongoing pandemic, another part was going door-to-door to have conversations with voters.
So, there I was: bundled up for a brisk northeastern autumn, covered in stickers, with my voter list in hand. The focus that day wasn’t only to promote a candidate. It was to hear directly from voters about the issues they cared about. Why? Because candidates for elected office want to know what issues are on the minds of the people they wish to represent.
Many of the doors I knocked on never opened. However, when I did have a conversation with a voter, two things stuck with me. First, how taken aback they were that someone wanted to hear about the issues they cared about instead of just speaking with talking points. Second, how passionately they spoke about those issues when given the chance. These conversations could one day turn into policy that betters the community.
I share this story because it’s incredibly telling. During a tumultuous time, it’s still possible for everyday people to make a difference. Which is why your #Vote4MentalHealth matters more than ever.
NAMI will never tell you who to vote for or support. Rather, NAMI wants voters to understand how different policymakers impact mental health in our communities. Additionally, NAMI wants voters to know what they can do to educate candidates about mental illness. As my experiences show, candidate education can go a long way.
How different elected officials affect mental health services
Across the country, mental health is on the ballot in 2020. Elected officials — from the president and Congress to county commissioners and local school board members — have influence on issues impacting people affected by mental health conditions. From health care to the economy to criminal justice and more, mental health touches many of the issues you care about the most. When you cast your ballot, you #Vote4MentalHealth, whether you realize it or not.
But before you cast your ballot, it’s important to know how policymakers at all levels of government have an impact on mental health services in your community.
Locally elected officials affect our community-based services and supports. If your county or city operates mobile crisis services or peer support programs, your councilmembers make decisions about funding for these services. Additionally, your elected sheriff, elected district attorney or elected judges play a role in policies to divert people with mental health conditions from justice system involvement.
At the state level, the people we elect — like our state legislators and governor, but also some elected insurance commissioners — make decisions that affect state-supported mental health services and supports. This includes things like setting state Medicaid plan benefits, overseeing psychiatric hospitals, funding community services like First Episode Psychosis (FEP) Programs and enforcing mental health parity.
Our members of Congress set policy and appropriate funds for federal service, like Medicaid, veterans’ health care and research. The president and their cabinet oversee federal agency officials and conduct rulemaking to execute the laws passed by Congress.
Ways to educate candidates about mental illness
Knowing how policymakers influence what you see in your community is an important first step. Now take the next one to #Vote4MentalHealth: engaging and educating candidates. Doing this doesn’t have to be complex. Here are some ideas to get you started.
- Learn about all candidates. Seek out all the candidates, not just the ones you think you support. Follow candidates on social media, sign up for their e-newsletters and read about their policy proposals on their websites.
- Share your story. If you are comfortable, sharing how your personal experience with mental illness has affected you or a loved one makes issues real to candidates.
- Ask open-ended questions. Don’t feed an answer to a candidate. Talk to them with an open mind and a general curiosity about their positions to learn about what solutions they propose. Listen carefully to their answers and acknowledge the points that they make.
- Talk to campaign staff. Staffers are a great way to learn about where candidates stand on issues when you can’t speak to the candidate directly.
- Follow-up after the election. Once a candidate is elected, being an engaged and active advocate helps build momentum on your issue. Sign up for their e-newsletter or follow their official social media account to learn what they are working on.
Policymakers at every level make decisions that influence the mental health care in our communities. Just like the people I spoke with when going door-to-door, understanding that impact and engaging with candidates sends the message that mental health matters.
Learn more, find tips to engage with candidates and take the pledge to #Vote4MentalHealth
Brandon Graham is Senior Manager, Advocate Engagement at NAMI.