Presidential Candidates Preach Importance of Decriminalizing Addition, Preventing Suicides

Presidential candidates tackled addiction decriminalization, suicide prevention and other behavioral health issues Monday night at the Unite for Mental Health New Hampshire Town Hall hosted at Saint Anselm College in Manchester. 

Candidates Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), Joe Walsh (R-Ill.), former Mass. Gov. Deval Patrick (D) and former Mass. Gov. Bill Weld (R) shared their plans to address behavioral health issues nationwide and fielded questions from the audience.

The event was hosted by Mental Health for US, the National Council for Behavioral Health and the New Hampshire Community Behavioral Health Association.


While the longshot candidates presented their views individually, many of the themes they discussed were universal. Take the push to decriminalize behavioral health issues for example. 

“We have to divorce both substance disorders … and mental health from the criminal justice system and treat them as the national mental health emergency that they are,” Weld told event attendees. “That idea has slowly but surely taken root.” 

Gabbard, Patrick and Walsh all echoed similar sentiments, preaching the need for more equitable treatment of behavioral health issues nationwide. 


“People who suffer with mental health problems should be treated like patients, not criminals,” Patrick said.

“Until we get to a place in this country where we treat mental illness like other illnesses, mental illness is always going to get the short straw,” Walsh said. “That’s a big problem.”

Another common thread that connected the candidates was the emphasis they put on the need for better, more accessible behavioral health care services. 

From Gabbard’s vantage point, that starts with better access to health care in general, “really approaching mental health from a holistic perspective,” she told event attendees.

“By guaranteeing quality health care for everyone in this country, we’re able to provide that peace of mind for parents, for children,” Gabbard said, stressing the importance of children and veteran’s mental health.

Meanwhile, Walsh said that not enough community agencies are working together to address various mental health issues. And Weld praised the FCC’s recent vote to shorten the national suicide hotline number to three digits while also sharing his desire to make it harder for people at risk of committing suicide to access guns. 

“Mental health issues and needs must be covered as a part of universal comprehensive health care,” Patrick said. “That in turn means we have to deal with the capacity issues, the shortage of people and facilities to meet the need.”

While the candidates who spoke at the event aren’t considered front-runners in the 2020 race, a number of other presidential hopefuls have also touted their behavioral health plans on the campaign trail. 

For example, before dropping out of the presidential race earlier this month, Kamala Harris unveiled a mental health reform plan of her own, which would have created more opportunities and higher reimbursement rates for providers.

Competitive candidates Pete Buttigieg and Elizabeth Warren, as well as Amy Klobuchar and John Delaney, have also proposed various mental health plans.

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