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A bipartisan group of lawmakers is pushing Congress to dedicate a week this year to mental health and substance abuse awareness. And they’re doing so by pointing out a pretty grim statistic: More than 100,000 Americans died from drug overdose-related causes in 2021.
The 140-member Task Force on Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder is led by Reps. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), David Trone (D-Md.), Lisa McClain (R-Mich.) and Annie Kuster (D-N.H.). The lawmakers, some of whom know or have lost loved ones due to mental health struggles or drug use, sat down with us to discuss the task force.
“Shame on us for not doing more to save our lives than we have done,” Trone said. “We’ve done a lot, but we are not winning the battle.”
Part of their goal is to remove the stigma attached to those issues, including by changing the language used to talk about mental health and substance use disorder. The group, established in 2021, changed its name from the “Addiction and Mental Health” to “Mental Health and Substance Use Disorder” task force this year.
Fitzpatrick has talked with House leaders about bringing their bills to the floor and hearing from community mental health and recovery advocates.
Although they weren’t successful in that goal during the last Congress, the lawmakers are more confident about the chances for a dedicated week as attitudes towards mental health change on Capitol Hill.
Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) recently checked himself into Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to receive treatment for clinical depression. Fetterman received support across the aisle. Fetterman’s move prompted other lawmakers, such as Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.), to share their own stories about struggles with mental health challenges.
“One of the things we’ve noticed from the task force is how many members’ families are impacted by this in a personal way,” Kuster said. “We’ve heard some incredible personal stories from people and it’s just very powerful.”
Trone and McClain opened up to us about losing loved ones to overdose-related deaths and mental health challenges. A son of one of McClain’s best friends died from a drug overdose, which prompted her to help launch a local sobriety group in Macomb County, Mich. Trone lost his nephew, 24-year-old Ian Trone, in 2016 to a fentanyl-laced heroin overdose.
Fitzpatrick said his top priority is ensuring any legislation the task force proposes gets bipartisan support. He also hopes to raise awareness that these issues can affect everyone.
“This knows no socioeconomic bounds or barriers,” Fitzpatrick said. “The solution should reflect that as well.”