Solidarity Divided: Advocates Must Unite To Spark Political Will For Addressing Mental Health and Addiction In America

I had the honor of participating in the EDC and Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention From Pain to Promise: Addressing Opioids & Suicide in Communities Across America forum in Washington, D.C. yesterday.

One of the speakers at the event, former U.S. Representative Patrick Kennedy, raised a great point that has stuck with me since the moment I heard it. When it comes to lawmakers and our current administration finally being moved into substantial action, it is not that we are lacking a widespread public awareness of the problems surrounding mental illness and substance misuse in America, and it’s not that we don’t have an abundance of thought leaders and people with lived experience who know and can offer the solutions – it’s what we don’t have that is the key to the inaction. What we don’t have, what is still missing is the political will necessary to move lawmakers into action on the issue of truly addressing the variety of mental health and substance use concerns impacting all of us in this country.

How could that be? How could the political will not be there? Every day we see staggering and ever increasing numbers of overdose deaths highlighted in the news. More and more often it seems, we know somebody or at least hear of a person of revered celebrity status who has died a premature death due to suicide. For almost all of us, either we or somebody we know lives with a mental health concern. How could the political will for legislative action not be there?

From an advocacy and lobbying perspective, one significant reason why the political will is not there is the following, and it a reason we all play a part in. When it comes to demanding of our legislators that they do their due diligence around addressing the public health concerns of mental health and substance use challenges in America, advocates and allies present as an utterly divided front. There is very little solidarity among our divided factions. We come to lawmakers using different language, presenting different agendas, prioritizing different strategies and solutions. We are at times so busy fighting with one another that lawmakers don’t even know what to think, let alone the general public. Is addiction a disease or a choice? Is harm reduction helpful or enabling? Is enabling a word and theory we should keep or be rid of? Do we need to let people hit “rock bottom” or prevent people from hitting “rock bottom?” Is access to medication assisted treatment a necessary option for an opioid use disorder or is that person not really in recovery if they are using medication? Should substance use disorder treatment be involuntarily mandated or is that antithetical to what we know about substance use disorder, recovery and the values of choice and self-determination? Do we need to fund more treatment or should we fund more recovery support services? Does prevention work or does prevention not work? Should mental health and substance use disorder treatment be integrated or should they be kept separate?

These are just some of the areas in which those of us seeking solutions from lawmakers can find ourselves divided among ourselves. And, depending on who lawmakers talk to or hear testimony from, there can be a wide variety of answers to these questions. We are, quite frankly, solidarity divided.

If we are ever going to see the comprehensive and thoughtful response from our federal government we so desperately need, it is imperative that we become less divided and identify bridges for unifying and coming together. It is critical that we put aside differences for the sake of saving lives and communities and that we identify areas of common ground and issues of convergence. We don’t need to agree on everything, but at the end of the day, if we want to see the missing piece of political will for legislative action, we need to at least agree on some things and present as a unified front to lawmakers as one voice demanding social justice.

I just so happen to believe we can to do that. I just so happen to believe we all play a part in making that happen. For me, the most important question every advocate, ally and lobbyist should be asking themselves at this point is this: what can I do to bridge the divide among the factions of our movement, and since lives and community wellness depend on it, what am I waiting for to begin doing that?

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