By Pete Buttigieg
I’ve often said that the greatest country on earth should have nothing to fear from children fleeing violence--and children fleeing violence should have nothing to fear from the greatest country on earth. Yet one of the most tragic impacts of this Administration’s inhumane immigration policies has been the trauma inflicted on an entire community. Children scream and sob uncontrollably, even after being reunited with their families. Parents leave for work terrified that they’ll never see their children again. Anxiety and stress have spiked among Latinx youth.
Too many in the Latinx community won’t even seek medical help, for fear an ICE agent might arrive at the hospital or clinic. This crisis is only one vivid illustration of a larger American epidemic. It’s a crisis of mental health and addiction care that’s been building for years, and one that has disproportionately affected the Latinx community. Tragically, for instance, young Latinas are twice as likely to attempt suicide than their white peers.
This epidemic is the result of years of neglect by political leaders in Washington, who claim to prioritize mental health and addiction while simultaneously seeking to slash funding for treatment. Our health care system is so broken—and our approach so fragmented and often punitive—that fewerthan one in five Americans with a substance use disorder and two in five with a mental illness receive treatment.
These rates are even lower in the Latinx community, which faces greater barriers to accessing care. To meet this urgent national challenge, we need a new approach to providing mental health and addiction care that is mindful of the unique needs and barriers facing the Latinx community. That will require a true national commitment to treat this as the crisis it is, rooted in empowering communities so that everyone feels they have the support and resources to heal. Today, I’m proposing a plan to do just that.
Tackling this crisis begins by strengthening those local communities. Through $10 billion annual Healing and Belonging grants, we’ll encourage our communities to leverage their ingenuity and
on-the-ground expertise to help improve health. Las Vegas might choose to expand the addiction care workforce through its churches. Houston might focus on improving Latina mental health through culturally-respectful initiatives.
We’ll also create a more integrated approach to care that will allow for universal access to mental health and addiction coverage. We’ll incentivize greater integration of primary care and mental health. And we’ll finally enforce mental health parity--meaning that if a health plan offers unlimited doctor visits for a physical condition, it must do the same for a mental health condition-- by penalizing insurance companies that do not comply. These measures will help improve access in the Latinx community. At the same time, with the rate of Latinx opioid overdose deaths rising faster than among whites, we will tackle the opioid epidemic head-on.
Having witnessed firsthand how lives were saved when we equipped South Bend first responders with Narcan, we’ll ensure universal access to medication for addiction treatment--and hold drug companies accountable for exacerbating the epidemic in the first place. Our plan will raise awareness of trauma and expand access to trauma-informed health care. So a Latinx family traumatized by random ICE enforcement or a Puerto Rican community reeling from this Administration’s disastrous response to Hurricane Maria can receive care in a safe, supportive, and respectful environment.
Because this crisis needs all hands on deck, we will also prepare not only more medical and mental health professionals, but also entire communities. We’ll train police forces to identify mental illness, so that someone in crisis ends up in treatment before it’s too late . We’ll require every school across the country to teach Mental Health First Aid courses, which will be available in Spanish and other languages, and train teachers and school staff to know how to help students when they need it. And we’ll reduce the stigma around these issues and bring those affected out of the shadows.
Finally, we will take on mental health and addiction by addressing the deeper crisis of belonging in this country. Through our national service program, we’ll knit together our social fabric so that Americans can find meaning in assisting others--including through a Community Health Corps to help those dealing with addiction and mental illness. We’ll launch a national campaign to counter isolation and alienation. And we’ll work to ensure that this Administration’s message of division is drowned out by those of us insisting that the Latinx community has an equal claim on the blessings of life in this country.
Through these bold policies, we’ll reduce the number of people incarcerated because of mental illness or substance use by 75 percent and ensure that far more of those who need care receive it--10 million more people by the end of my first term compared to today. And by 2028, we will prevent 1 million deaths of despair. Now is the time to pursue meaningful, transformative reform and save lives. When I’m President, we will.
Pete Buttigieg is mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and is running for the Democratic presidential nomination.