Hillary Clinton to Take Stand on Mental Health

May 7th 2015

Dante Atkins

The 2008 presidential campaign of then-Senator Hillary Clinton faced consistent critique from outside observers: it was viewed as driven by polls, out of touch with regular voters, and too dependent on her personal celebrity. Eight years later, the current campaign team for the former First Lady and Secretary of State has promised that this campaign would be different. And if her recent focus on mental health is emblematic of her campaign as a whole, it certainly will be.

Mental health issues in the United States are widespread. According to the US Government’s National Institute of Mental Health, nearly one in five Americans suffered from a mental illness in 2012—and that figure doesn’t include rates of addiction and substance abuse. With figures that high, you would think that mental health would be a much bigger political issue, but it’s not. We’re far more likely to scrutinize the mental health history of our presidential candidates than we are to expect a presidential-level debate about how to get people the treatment they need.

This is more than likely owing to the stigma surrounding mental illness: according to a recent RAND corporation study of attitudes in California, less than half of people facing psychological distress believe that the public is sympathetic to them, and over two-thirds said they would likely hide a mental health problem from co-workers.

Given that data, it’s easy to see why mental health issues are swept under the rug: despite their prevalence, it’s an uncomfortable subject to address (unless you have the tools to talk about it). But Clinton is working on changing that. At a recent small roundtable gathering of voters in New Hampshire, she promised to make mental health and drug treatment a key part of her campaign.

Now, this isn’t Hillary Clinton’s first bite at the mental health apple: When President Bill Clinton made a push for health insurance reform in 1993, he appointed Hillary to head the Health Care Reform Task Force. That task force created a working group on mental health headed by former Second Lady Tipper Gore. Ultimately, the effort to pass what came to be known as “HillaryCare” failed in Congress, but differences in how to approach the problem of mental illness were a prominent feature in the debate.

Over two decades later, Ms. Clinton isn’t trying to tackle mental health and substance abuse from a D.C. war room. Instead, her renewed focus is arising from conversations on the ground with small groups of voters. According to her announcement, the decision to make these issues prominent in the campaign did not come from the Brooklyn headquarters. Rather, it arose organically and unexpectedly from the conversations she has been having with ordinary people on the campaign trail. And while the focus on mental health care is good news for anyone who suffers from these issues or knows someone who does, it also helps her campaign.

To begin with, Clinton’s presidential campaign has been ruthlessly low-key: it has been intentionally crafted to avoid the notion of celebrity or inevitability, and convey the impression that she understands the need to compete for votes at the individual level. Declaring early on that a new focus of the campaign has been directly informed by one-on-one meetings is an easy way of saying, “I’m listening, and regular people have a role to play in this campaign.”

"I want to hear from people of New Hampshire what's on their minds," Clinton said at one of the New Hampshire events. "I have to tell you, before I went to Iowa last week I wasn't aware of the depth of feeling people had about substance abuse issues, so here again, I heard it in New Hampshire, so I want people to know that I'm listening."