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Opinion | Katie Britt: It’s long past time we talk about mental health

“We all need to begin addressing mental health as seriously and openly as we address all other physical health issues.”

Senate candidate Katie Britt on her family farm.

The subject of mental health has been all the buzz on news broadcasts, sports shows and around dinner tables all over the world this past week.

Frankly, it’s a conversation that is long overdue.

As I travel our great state, I frequently hear from judges, circuit clerks, law enforcement officers and health care workers that mental health issues are a root cause of a large percentage of crime, hard drug use and violence that we experience in Alabama. A lack of adequate services, coupled with the stigma that is often attached to seeking mental health treatment, has led to a statewide – and nationwide – crisis that is impacting our society on many levels.

I believe that all Alabamians should have the opportunity to succeed, and that cannot occur if we do not prioritize mental health. The Alabama Department of Mental Health already serves over 200,000 of Alabama’s citizens today living with mental illnesses, developmental disabilities, or substance use disorders, but it is estimated that over one million Alabamians have a mental illness. Unfortunately, Alabama ranks 46thnationally when it comes to access to mental health services, and 56.5 percent of Alabamians with a mental illness receive no mental health treatment.

To those facing these battles, you are not alone. One in five Americans experience mental illness in their lifetime, and it’s time we eliminate the stigma associated with it.

We must ensure every single Alabamian has access to the resources and care they need to thrive. Thankfully, the Alabama Legislature and Gov. Kay Ivey’s administration have made strides in recent years to increase state investment in mental health services. This includes three new crisis centers in Mobile, Montgomery and Huntsville, as well as five new rural crisis care projects with mobile crisis teams that will expand access to care for Alabamians across the state. An additional crisis center will be established in the Birmingham-Tuscaloosa region later this year.

In the U.S. Senate, I’ll be a champion for measures that responsibly improve access to mental health resources and services, such as the Excellence in Mental Health and Addiction Treatment Act of 2021, the Mental Health Access Improvement Act of 2021, the Improving Access to Mental Health Act of 2021, and the Creating Opportunities Now for Necessary and Effective Care Technologies (CONNECT) for Health Act of 2021.

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I will work every day to ensure no Alabamian is forgotten or slips through the cracks of our system.

This includes the people and communities of our state who have been ravaged by the opioid epidemic. In 2018, Alabama providers wrote 97.5 opioid prescriptions for every 100 people — the highest such rate in the United States and almost twofold greater than the national average. While elected officials on the state level have taken steps in recent years to move the needle in the right direction, we still have a long way to go. As we continue to combat this crisis, part of the effort must include holding bad actors responsible for their roles in creating this deadly problem. Nearly half of the 775 reported drug overdose deaths in Alabama involved opioids in 2018.

That’s why I would support the Non-Opioids Prevent Addiction in the Nation (NOPAIN) Act in the U.S. Senate, which would promote non-addictive treatments for those recovering from surgery as an alternative to opioids.

I will also support efforts to stem the rash of suicides facing Alabama and our nation as a whole. As of 2018, the suicide rate in Alabama was 16.8 per 100,000, which was higher than the national average of 14.2 per 100,000. This made suicide the 11th leading cause of death in our state, with 823 citizens lost to suicide compared to 567 deaths due to homicide. Suicide rates are also far greater among certain demographics in America and Alabama, including among our tremendous veterans.

While supporting mental health efforts goes hand-in-hand with lowering the suicide rate, suicide is a complicated issue and is rarely caused by a single factor. CDC data has indicated that more than 50 percent of people who die by suicide are not known to have a mental illness. Factors such as substance abuse, physical health, job trouble, money or legal difficulties can also contribute. My goal is to help build an Alabama in which increased opportunity and the proper safety net of resources combine to decrease these common suicide factors.

While we have a lot of work to do long-term, we all need to begin addressing mental health as seriously and openly as we address all other physical health issues. Hopefully, this past week’s conversations can continue in the weeks and months ahead and lead to real, positive change.

Resources are available for those battling mental illness via the National Alliance for Mental Illness here and the Alabama Department of Mental Health here.

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Katie Britt is a Republican candidate to serve as the next U.S. Senator for Alabama. An Enterprise native, Katie resides in Montgomery with her husband, Wesley, and their two children, Bennett and Ridgeway.

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