By BROOKE WANSER
The Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network has released the responses each of the candidates for governor gave in answer to questions of mental health and suicide rates across the state.
At a recent Advisory Council retreat, each candidate was asked to provide answers to questions about mental health, suicide, and what role they would play if elected to bring awareness and resources to the crisis.
“TSPN wishes to provide these responses across Tennessee to inform those invested in suicide prevention, with no stance,” wrote Joanne Perley, the director of statewide initiatives and development.
Diane Black, Republican
U.S. Rep. Diane Black noted the tragic suicide of 16-year-old constituent Jason Flatt, whose father, “turned his grief into a mission and started the Jason Foundation to promote awareness of the ‘silent epidemic’ of youth suicide.”
“Clark inspired me to author the Jason Flatt Act of 2007, which requires at least two hours of suicide prevention training for all Tennessee teachers and principals each school year, using a curriculum of their choosing that instructs on recognizing the signs and symptoms of troubled youth and those who may be at risk for suicide,” Black continued in her response.
Black said any discussion of suicide must note bullying, addiction, and mental illness, and said she wants to address it.
“Treating mental illness has not been a priority in government, and as governor, I want to make it one,” she said. “I sponsored a bill to train teachers to recognize the signs of mental illness in their students, and I support an increased presence of guidance counselors in our schools.”
A former nurse, Black also responded to a question about the opioid crisis’ effects on suicide numbers rising, saying she has a three-pronged approach.
“We must go after the bad actors,” she said, like pill mills, treat those who are addicted as patients and offer rehabilitation programs in state prisons, and incentivize pharmaceutical companies to include emetics in their formulations that protect against drug overdoses, as well as prioritizing non-pharmaceutical pain management options.
Randy Boyd, Republican
Though businessman Randy Boyd said he had not personally been touched by the suicide of a loved one, he said he would lead a major investment in mental health and recovery centers if elected.
“The number-one thing the governor can do is simply take these issues out of the shadows and simply talk about them,”Boyd wrote. “Mental illness should no longer have the stigma that has been attached to it for too long.” He also advocated for increasing mental health professionals in schools and educational campaigns.
Boyd referenced his 10-point plan as a way to impinge on the opioid crisis, including declaring a state of emergency in order to fully concentrate resources on the problem.
He also noted that suicide prevention is largely focused on young people, but should be broadened.
“As governor, I will work to see that mental health funding is a priority for the entire state so that Tennesseans at every stage of life get the help they need,” he ended.
Karl Dean, Democrat
As Nashville’s former public defender, Karl Dean said he wants to see mental health stigma end.
“We have to stop treating mental illness as a crime,” he said. “When experiencing a mental health crisis, people are more likely to encounter police than get medical help, which means many individuals end up in jail who should be getting access to treatment instead.”
Dean proposed partnering with law enforcement to train and assist in their encounters with mental health crises and expanding Medicaid to increase access to treatment for the most vulnerable.
Like other candidates, Dean supports expanding mental health resources in schools, and support related nonprofits in their work.
“I think opioid abuse and mental health are connected because you often have individuals with undiagnosed or untreated mental health conditions self-medicating through substance abuse,” Dean wrote, again noting the need to expand Medicaid services.
“20% (or one-fifth) of adult Tennesseans experience some level of a mental health illness in an average year and nearly 5% of adult Tennesseans experience serious mental health illness in an average year,” he said in closing. “So we all know someone this affects and we need to do a better job of recognizing and supporting mental health needs.”
Craig Fitzhugh, Democrat
“My close experiences with suicide come from my best friend from high school and a neighbor, as well as the multiple attempts of a friend of my children,” Rep. Craig Fitzhugh wrote.
He said he wanted to shine a light on helping veterans struggling with mental health issues.
Like Dean, Fitzhugh said he believes expanding Medicaid is a solution to the problem.
“If a person who is struggling can see a doctor and get medication and/or talk therapy if they need it, then they have a much better chance of dealing with suicidal thoughts,” Fitzhugh said.
Fitzhugh noted the state legislature’s recent efforts to combat the opioid crisis, but said they didn’t go far enough in addressing the problem.
“The money that the state invested was the same amount that some individual hospitals spend for opioid treatment,” he said. “We have to make sure that we are not using our corrections system as a drug treatment center with no treatment, just as we cannot use it as a mental health holding system.”
He suggested treating those who struggle with addiction on the mental health end first, which could alleviate some of the cases altogether.
His bottom-line solution? “I will say it again: Medicaid expansion.”
Beth Harwell, Republican
Beth Harwell, the Speaker of the House, called the suicide epidemic “nearly inescapable.”
“I served on the Board of Mental Health of America of Middle Tennessee from 2011 to 2017, and I am proud of the strides and accomplishments made by that organization,” she said.
Instead of creating new programs and funding, Harwell suggested that the state could do a better job of emphasizing the programs that already exist, especially in schools.
“I don’t think it’s just a question of funding, I think we need to make sure that we are fully utilizing the funding and programs we already have in place,” Harwell wrote.
“We need to put more emphasis on this training that we have in place, and make sure that every school district takes advantage of these resources that we already have funded,” she said.
As a member of the Opioid Abuse Task Force, Harwell said she was proud the steps the government has taken to address that particular crisis.
“A major focus for me was expanding and adding funding to our recovery court system. We cannot incarcerate our way out of this problem, and recovery courts can help provide the support needed for those mental health issues that are often a part of substance abuse problems,” she said. “I think these were some great first steps to stem the tide of opioid addiction, but there is certainly more work to be done.”
Bill Lee, Republican
Businessman Bill Lee said his familiarity with suicide comes from his daughter’s attempt after his first wife’s death during a horse riding accident.
“I learned that there were very few resources at the time for a parent in crisis. I learned that navigating the mental health system and accessing support was very difficult,” he wrote. “I connected with the Jason Foundation and began to support and encourage that work, as well as others that could offer help and prevention.”
In addition to providing more training for law enforcement officers and other professionals, Lee suggested a strong partnership with nonprofits and faith-based organizations doing mental health outreach.
With the opioid crisis, “It’s becoming universally evident that addiction is strongly connected to trauma and specifically to adverse childhood experiences,” Lee said. “This understanding should be reflected in how we structure reimbursement to providers and how we empower communities to respond to the opioid epidemic.”
He noted the highest rates of suicide among the middle-aged, male population, and said community and faith-based outreach is the answer to addressing a root cause of mental health issues.
“I’ve called for the creation of an expanded office of faith-based and community initiatives,” Lee said.
“This office would serve as an advocate and a liaison for our faith-based and community organizations to give them the tools they need to solve the problems government can’t.”
For each candidate’s full responses, go to tspn.org/2018-gubernatorial-responses.