Men­tal health care ef­forts a pri­or­ity for Wild

The Morning Call - - LOCAL NEWS - By Laura Ol­son

Men­tal health wasn’t some­thing Su­san Wild imag­ined be­com­ing one of her pri­mary pol­icy is­sues when she came to Congress last year.

That changed af­ter los­ing her long­time part­ner, Kerry Acker, to sui­cide in May. In the months since his death, the Demo­cratic law­maker from the Le­high Val­ley has been talk­ing to ex­perts about what’s needed to strengthen men­tal health re­sources and sui­cide pre­ven­tion.

“I didn’t ex­pect to be here at this mo­ment in time, but we go where the path of life leads us, and this is where it has led me,” Wild said Fri­day as she in­tro­duced two bills stem­ming from that ef­fort.

One would di­rect fed­eral ed­u­ca­tion and health of­fi­cials to en­cour­age col­leges to de­velop sui­cide pre­ven­tion plans, aim­ing to boost re­sources for an age group for which sui­cide is the sec­ond-lead­ing cause of death.

Wild also wants in­creased ac­cess to men­tal health care for those af­fected by sui­cide. Her other bill would make the sui­cide of a loved one a qual­i­fy­ing event for fam­ily mem­bers to en­roll in or change an in­sur­ance plan, so they have men­tal health cov­er­age. Typ­i­cally, those in­sur­ance changes can only oc­cur dur­ing an an­nual open en­roll­ment pe­riod, or af­ter a life event like mar­riage or the birth of a child.

Wild finds a ther­a­peu­tic as­pect to work­ing on the leg­is­la­tion and seek­ing to aid those who have or might ex­pe­ri­ence such per­sonal trauma. But it does lit­tle to al­le­vi­ate her own griev­ing. Hours be­fore end­ing his own life Acker, whose strug­gle with de­pres­sion was linked to chronic pain from a surgery, texted her to say how much he loved her.

“It does, to some ex­tent, help to feel as though I’m do­ing some­thing spe­cific that will el­e­vate the dis­cus­sion about men­tal health is­sues and sui­cide,” Wild told The Morn­ing Call.

“On the other hand,” she added, “it doesn’t re­ally mat­ter how use­ful and ben­e­fi­cial I think it is for the coun­try at large. It doesn’t do any­thing to help the per­sonal loss. It doesn’t abate that at all.”

One month af­ter Acker’s death, Wild shared his story on the U.S. House floor, choking up as she de­scribed the 63-year-old at­tor­ney that she had met in law school and re­con­nected with in 2002. Among those lis­ten­ing was Fred Stokes, a for­mer NFL player who nearly took his own life.

Stokes reached out to Wild days later, of­fer­ing to help with her pol­icy push any way he can.

“I heard her voice, but I felt her heart, be­cause of what I ex­pe­ri­enced,” Stokes re­called dur­ing Fri­day’s roundtable event with men­tal health ex­perts and ad­vo­cates.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also stopped by to show her sup­port for ex­pand­ing re­sources to pre­vent sui­cides, and praised Wild’s strength in work­ing on the deeply per­sonal is­sue.

“Imag­ine the courage of her to do this,” Pelosi said, hug­ging Wild.

Since that floor speech in June, Wild has been speak­ing pub­licly about her own loss, seek­ing to de-stig­ma­tize dis­cus­sions around men­tal health and sui­cide. She points to the sta­tis­tics from 2017, when there were 47,000 sui­cides and 1.4 mil­lion sui­cide at­tempts, as ev­i­dence it af­fects many across the coun­try.

That was re­in­forced by the num­ber of peo­ple who have come up to her on Capi­tol Hill or reached out to her of­fice, seek­ing to share their sto­ries.

Talk­ing about men­tal health should be more like talk­ing about a phys­i­cal health is­sue, Wild says, com­par­ing the re­luc­tance that em­ploy­ees might feel to ask for ac­com­mo­da­tions to see a ther­a­pist to mak­ing the same request for an­other type of doc­tor’s ap­point­ment.

“No­body wants any­one out­side of their im­me­di­ate fam­ily to know about their per­sonal, emo­tional strug­gles,” Wild said. “So when peo­ple are able to come out and talk about it ... I re­ally ad­mire that in peo­ple, be­cause we’ve got to nor­mal­ize it so that peo­ple seek the help that they need.”

State Rep. Mike Schloss­berg, D-Al­len­town, who has spo­ken openly about his own strug­gles with de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety, spon­sored a state law ap­proved last year that’s sim­i­lar to Wild’s pro­posal for col­leges. Schloss­berg’s mea­sure cre­ated an op­tional cer­ti­fi­ca­tion process rec­og­niz­ing col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties that cre­ate sui­cide pre­ven­tion pro­grams.

He said so far just one school — Al­len­town’s Muh­len­berg Col­lege — has opted in to the state pro­gram.

“It is clear that we need to do more,” Schloss­berg said.

Some of the un­met needs have a leg­isla­tive fix, such as cre­at­ing an easy-to-re­mem­ber, three-digit num­ber for the na­tional sui­cide hot­line, train­ing more men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als, and cre­at­ing more phys­i­cal bar­ri­ers on bridges.

Oth­ers may be cul­tural, like ex­pand­ing the aware­ness around the best prac­tices for how to talk to some­one strug­gling with men­tal health is­sues and the proper ter­mi­nol­ogy, such as say­ing some­one “died by sui­cide” in­stead of “com­mit­ted.”

Per­haps most of all, Wild said as the con­ver­sa­tion at Fri­day’s event eas­ily spilled over its ini­tial hour­long time frame, is the im­por­tance of keep­ing the con­ver­sa­tion go­ing.

Wash­ing­ton cor­re­spon­dent Laura Ol­son can be reached at 202-780-9540 or lol­[email protected]

LAURA OL­SON/THE MORN­ING CALL

U.S. Rep. Su­san Wild, D-Le­high Val­ley, lis­tens dur­ing aroundtabl­e event Fri­day on Capi­tol Hill about men­tal health is­sues and sui­cide pre­ven­tion.

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