WASHINGTON, D.C. [05/15/19]—Today, U.S. Senator Tina Smith (D-Minn.) took to the Senate floor to share her own mental health story as part of her push to make access to mental health care for Minnesotans and Americans a top priority.
In her speech, Sen. Smith—a member of the Senate Health Committee—shared her own experiences with depression earlier in life, and highlighted the need to provide mental health support to people at every age across the nation in both rural and urban areas, no matter what zip code they live in.
“That’s my story. Really, it’s the story of millions of Americans. But I chose to share mine, first in an op-ed in the Rochester Post Bulletin and now here on the floor of the Senate, because I want to urge anyone who struggles with depression—or anxiety, or substance abuse, or post-traumatic stress disorder, or any other mental health issue—to reach out and seek help.
“But de-stigmatizing and de-mystifying mental illness is just the beginning. Everyone can be a friend to those in need by urging them to take advantage of the resources available to them. But the one hundred of us here in the Senate have a responsibility to make sure those resources are available to everyone. We can’t afford to leave holes in the net we build to catch people when they fall.
“I hope that my colleagues will join me in continuing to take action to address the mental health crisis. And I hope that sharing my own story will make it easier for more Americans to add their voices to this fight.”
You can download video of Sen. Smith’s remarks here.
You can read Sen. Smith’s remarks as prepared for delivery below:
Mental Health Floor Speech
Senator Tina Smith
(remarks as prepared for delivery)
When I first came to the Senate, I knew I wanted to make mental health one of my top priorities.
As a Minnesotan, I’m proud of the way our Senators have led the way on this important issue, from Paul Wellstone to Al Franken to Amy Klobuchar. And I’m honored to have the chance to further our proud legacy when it comes to improving our mental health system. But that’s not the only reason I’ve chosen to make mental health a focus.
I’m glad that it’s become a more prominent issue here in Washington. But I’ve noticed that it usually comes to the forefront in the context of an unthinkable tragedy.
When a high-profile celebrity takes his or her own life, we immediately want to reach out to people who are suffering in silence. Of course we do.
That’s not a bad thing. We can’t repeat the number often enough: If you are having thoughts of suicide, please, please, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. And even if you aren’t suffering from acute mental illness, put that number in your cell phone so you can someday help someone who is.
On the other hand: When a profoundly disturbed person commits a horrible act of violence, we immediately want to intervene before the next time it happens. Of course we do.
But when we bring up the need to improve our mental health system as the answer to the epidemic of mass shootings in America, we’re making two huge mistakes.
First, we’re ignoring our responsibility to address a much more direct cause of these tragedies: guns.
And, second, we’re unfairly and falsely stigmatizing mental illness.
Here’s another thing we can’t say often enough: It is exceedingly rare that someone’s mental illness leads them to commit acts of violence. In fact, they’re more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. And we must not make it harder for people to seek help by falsely tagging them as potentially dangerous if they do.
Yes, these tragedies are reminders that we need to spend more time talking about mental health. But let’s have the right conversation.
For the vast, vast majority of people who struggle with mental illness in America, the struggle isn’t about life or death. It’s about the quality of life they’re able to lead.
Mental health is a spectrum. And so many of our fellow citizens fall somewhere along it. They will never come close to harming themselves or anyone else, but they suffer from mental illness in some form or another.
These millions of Americans deserve our attention. These millions of Americans deserve our help.
And the other reason I want to focus on mental health care while I’m here is that I’m one of them.
When it started, I thought I was just having a bad day. Or, really, a series of bad days. Growing up, I had always been a pretty cheerful kid, but at some point during my second year of college, I started finding it harder and harder to cope with the daily challenges of life.
It was actually my roommate who noticed that I wasn’t myself and hadn’t been for a while. She suggested I go talk to someone over at Student Health Services. It was a completely foreign idea to me, and I responded the way a lot of people do: I can handle this on my own, thanks. But, eventually, I realized that maybe I was wrong about that.
It was really scary. Making that phone call. The walk over to the counselor’s office. Sitting in the waiting room. I didn’t know what to expect—and, to be honest, I was embarrassed.
The counselor’s name was Charlotte. She was so nice. So common-sense. She wasn’t patronizing or judgmental. She didn’t strap me down to a table or hypnotize me or cross-examine me until she unearthed some hidden trauma from childhood. She just asked me some simple questions about how I was feeling.
I remember that it felt like something of a relief just to talk about it. And, over the course of a few months, Charlotte gave me a few ideas for how to cope a little bit better with the challenges I was facing. And that was it. I would always walk out of there feeling just a little more courageous, just a little more hopeful.
Did I live happily ever after? Well, not quite. That’s not how mental illness works. There isn’t a box where you’re healthy and a box where you’re not. Like I said, it’s a spectrum. You try to get a little closer to the healthy end every day.
But at one point in my 30s, I found myself sliding way back in the wrong direction. There was nothing unusually traumatic going on in my life. I had my career; Archie and I were raising our two young sons. We were busy, we were tired, but what young parents aren’t?
Still, something was wrong. Everybody who has suffered from depression has their own metaphor to describe it, but most can identify with the sensation of the color draining out of your world. The things that used to give you joy don’t give you joy anymore. The things you used to love to do just make you exhausted. You just kind of slog through each day without really feeling anything but down.
And, of course, when you’re feeling that way, making it through the day is tough. I found myself struggling to be a good mom, a good wife, a good friend, a good colleague. I felt off, all the time: clumsy and slow, forgetting things, getting angry at the drop of a hat. Depression messes with your memory, but I’ll never forget when my son asked me, quietly and cautiously, “Mom, are you okay?”
It was a spiral: the worse things got, the more frustrated I became that I couldn’t get it together. Down and down I went, until I could no longer see hope on the horizon.
I was never suicidal. I never came remotely close to causing anyone any harm, except for maybe a few hurt feelings. But I wasn’t living my best life. I wasn’t really living at all.
That’s the reality of mental illness for millions of Americans. And I’m one of the lucky ones.
I was lucky that my college had excellent mental health resources and my roommate cared about me enough to urge me to take advantage of them.
And I was lucky that, when my depression came back with a vengeance, I had health insurance that covered treatment. There was a therapist named Susan who I’d seen off and on, and at one point I finally went in to tell her what was going on.
Susan asked a few questions. How are you sleeping? Terrible. Are you forgetting things? All the time. And then she suggested that I take a diagnostic test, which basically consisted of answering questions like these on a worksheet.
Even then, I was resistant. People often say that depression lies, and the biggest lie depression tells is the one it uses to protect itself. Depression tells you that what’s wrong with you is you. And so you resist getting help, because you refuse to accept that there’s anything happening except that you stupidly forgot it was recycling day again.
But I went ahead and filled out the worksheet. And Susan came back and said, Yep, you’re clinically depressed. So, let’s talk about what we can do about that.
One thing I’d say to people who are resisting going in for that appointment is that, even after I got that diagnosis, I was still in control. When Susan brought up the idea of medication, it was a suggestion, not an order.
And, I’ll admit, it was a suggestion I had a hard time with. I didn’t want to become a different person. I didn’t want some pill messing with my brain. What if it didn’t work, and I got worse? And, on the other hand, what if it did work? Would I really be better? Or would it just be the illusion of feeling better?
But Susan convinced me to give it a try. And I was lucky again: the first medication we tried worked.
I didn’t feel better right away. There was no big milestone moment when I woke up and everything was great again. But I remember feeling like I was slowly coming out of a fog. The color started seeping back into my life, a little more each day. I began to re-engage with the world, enjoying my family and my work and my hobbies. I started to see hope on the horizon once again.
After a couple years on medication, I slowly ramped down, and I haven’t had to get treatment since. Like I said, there is no happily ever after when it comes to mental illness. But happier is possible. And if anyone needs proof, come talk to me.
That’s my story. Really, it’s the story of millions of Americans. But I chose to share mine, first in an op-ed in the Rochester Post Bulletin and now here on the floor of the Senate, because I want to urge anyone who struggles with depression—or anxiety, or substance abuse, or post-traumatic stress disorder, or any other mental health issue—to reach out and seek help.
But de-stigmatizing and de-mystifying mental illness is just the beginning. Everyone can be a friend to those in need by urging them to take advantage of the resources available to them. But the one hundred of us here in the Senate have a responsibility to make sure those resources are available to everyone. We can’t afford to leave holes in the net we build to catch people when they fall.
Especially when one of the biggest holes is in our schools.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few weeks having conversations with teachers and administrators in public schools across Minnesota. Time and time again, when I ask them what keeps them up at night, they come back to the mental health epidemic.
They talk about the causes: everything from the increased social pressure that comes with social media to the trauma of losing a parent to opioids. But they also tell me about what this crisis really looks like at ground level.
A principal in St. Paul told me about the regular phenomenon of an ambulance pulling up at the school doors, rushing to the aid of a student who suffered a break. It’s happened more than half a dozen times this year alone.
Meanwhile, the principal in Parkers Prairie—a town in Otter Tail County of just over 1,000 people—told me she sees students experiencing homelessness and other trauma, students dealing with PTSD, students with eating disorders. Just this year, she’s had three students wind up in the hospital after self-harming. They have a heroic social worker who comes in—but only every other day, because they have to share her with another school in the district.
School psychologists across Minnesota tell me they’re struggling to keep up with the number of kids who need urgent intervention to make sure that, for example, their behavior issues don’t get them kicked out of school altogether.
As for kids whose issues are very real, but not quite as acute—the ninth-grader whose anxiety makes her sick to her stomach every day? They wind up stuck on waiting lists for treatment. And that’s even before psychologists can do any active outreach to students who haven’t reached out for help.
That’s why, last month, I re-introduced my Mental Health Services for Students Act. This bill would create a grant program for school districts looking to expand the mental health services they’re able to offer to students by partnering with the community mental health system.
If we’re going to get our arms around this crisis, we need to train more teachers, administrators, and members of the school community—including parents—to recognize when kids are struggling and connect them with help. And if we here in the Senate are serious about addressing mental health in our schools, we should pass this bill without delay.
But a comprehensive approach to mental health means improving the system all along the age continuum. Over in the HELP Committee, we have an opportunity this year to re-authorize the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, or CAPTA.
And I have a bill—sponsored in the House by my friend Representative Dean Phillips—that would improve the delivery of mental health services within our child welfare system. For example, my bill would make sure that young, at-risk children get important developmental screenings.
We’re learning that childhood trauma can be a major factor in future mental illness, and the more we do to address that underlying trauma—whether it’s poverty, the death or incarceration of a parent, or sexual abuse—the better chance we’ll have of turning the tide on this epidemic.
But the mental health crisis isn’t only affecting our kids. It’s affecting our parents, too. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control, one in five adults age 55 or older experiences a mental health issue, and a third of them never receive treatment. Men over the age of 75 have a higher suicide rate than any other age group.
The social isolation that too often comes with aging isn’t just unfortunate—it’s a public health risk. Just as we’ve learned to reach out to the veterans in our lives and in our communities to let them know we’re there for them if they’re struggling, we should do the same for our elders. And as the HELP Committee takes up the re-authorization of the Older Americans Act this year, I’ll work to do my part.
Our mental health system should be there for people at every age, from nursery to nursing home. It should be there for people everywhere along the mental health spectrum, offering everything from preventative care to ongoing therapy for chronic conditions to crisis support for those in acute distress.
But it should also be there for people in every zip code. And, unfortunately, some of the biggest holes in our system can be found in our rural areas.
As a Senator who’s proud to serve on the Agriculture Committee, I frequently meet with farm groups, and mental health is always one of the first topics to come up.
Farming is an inherently stressful profession, and the numbers for suicide prevention hotlines regularly appear in farm publications. But we need to include the entire rural community—from bankers and pastors to grocers and fertilizer sellers—in the conversation. And we need to make sure that, when people do reach out for help, help is there for them.
Unfortunately, rural communities in general are often underserved by mental health professionals compared to cities and suburbs. Many still have inconsistent access to the Internet, meaning that even online resources can be out of reach for someone who’s struggling.
That’s why, in the last farm bill, we set up a rural health liaison at the Department of Agriculture—someone who understands the specific needs of rural communities and is charged with paying attention to a crisis that has too often lurked beneath the surface.
And last year, Senator Murkowski and I worked together to pass a law that will provide mental health professionals in the National Health Service Corps with greater flexibility in where they practice and deliver care—increasing the resources available in underserved rural communities.
I hope that my colleagues will join me in continuing to take action to address the mental health crisis. And I hope that sharing my own story will make it easier for more Americans to add their voices to this fight.
Still, just as there’s no magic cure for depression, there’s no magic bill to solve this problem. Mental illness is a reality of life for millions of people in our country, and we can’t legislate it away.
But if we work to help more Americans bring their struggles out of the shadows and into the sunshine. . . if we reach out to people in need and connect them with people who can help. . . if we understand the factors that make people vulnerable to these problems and focus our energies on making sure the net is there to catch them if they fall. . . then we can take steps in the right direction, one after another, one day at a time.
I still remember what that felt like, in those weeks and months after I began to treat my depression. The sense of empowerment that came with finally taking my mental health into my own hands. The renewed energy that came with finally feeling like today is better than yesterday and tomorrow just might be better still. The incredible joy that came with finally seeing hope on the horizon once again.
Even in the midst of this public health crisis, I believe there is hope on the horizon for the millions of Americans who struggle with mental illness. But they are counting on us to make that hopeful vision a reality.
Thank you. I yield the floor.