Our view: Senator chips away at stigma of mental illness

May 3, 2019

There continues to be, despite all we’ve learned about mental illness, a stigma about the condition.

That’s why we’re glad U.S. Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.) in speaking about the issue, has revealed her own struggle with mental health.

In an op-ed written by Smith and published last Thursday in the Post Bulletin, Smith revealed that she at one time suffered from depression. It wasn’t until she was convinced by a therapist that she had depression and could overcome the condition that Smith began her recovery.

It was a rare admission from an elected official. In politics, it is usually considered dangerous to one’s electoral future to reveal a weakness of any kind, let alone a mental health issue.

We remember when Missouri Sen. Thomas Eagleton was forced from the Democratic ticket as vice president in 1972 when it became known he had suffered from mental health issues.

In a meeting with the Post Bulletin’s editorial board, Smith said she was aware of that history. However, in pushing for more funding for mental health counseling in school — she is sponsor of a bill that provides $200 million in funding for mental health counselors in schools — Smith said she believed her experiences could be instructive.

“I resisted putting it out there,” she said. But after hearing from school officials, as well as from stressed farm families, she was looking for a way to make a positive difference.

“If we say it and it helps one person … “ Smith said.

Smith is armed with statistics indicating that roughly 20 percent of people ages 13 to 18 are experiencing mental health issues.

Unfortunately, many of those teenagers face barriers to getting an appropriate diagnosis that resolves the issue. It can take up to eight or 10 years, Smith said.

That’s due in part to a shortage of health care professionals available to treat mental health among young people, and to other factors, such as insurance coverage, geographic location and reluctance to seek help for fear of being stigmatized.

Smith hopes the funding in her bill will help resolve some of the financial issues, and that the revelation of her own struggle with depression will chip away at the stigma.

She’s also concerned about the pressure and stress heaped on farm families struggling with a difficult ag economy. “I hear it over and over again in farm country,” she said.

Smith is carrying on the work of former Minnesota Sens. Paul Wellstone and Al Franken to improve mental health care for all who need it.

But to allow young people to see that a U.S. Senator has overcome the same struggle they face, and has gone on to achieve success at very high levels of state and national government, is perhaps Smith’s most valuable contribution.