Making Mental Health Part of the Debate: Helping 60 Million Americans
Helping 60 million Americans living with mental health conditions means treating mental and physical health equally. Let's not only stand up for what's right, let's vote for what's right.
Elected officials make decisions that affect how, when and where my family and I can get the mental health services and supports we need.
Learn the Issues
For decades, mental health advocates have shaped laws, increased funding and promoted research to address the inequities and injustices facing people with mental illness in our country.
We’ve made progress, but we still have further to go. Mental health advocates have an opportunity in 2018 to help identify and elect more mental health champions into office who understand mental health issues and are committed to funding the services and supports that people with mental illness need to get better and stay better.
From district attorneys to county officials to governors and members of Congress, every elected official plays a role in determining what services and supports are available to people with mental illness. Click here to learn more about how different elected officials affect mental health care.
There are many issues that mental health advocates care about. Most fall into three main categories:
- Promote Innovation
Mental health champions support investing in and accelerating research to better understand the brain and improve treatment options for a wide array of mental health conditions. Champions also support models that promote the integration of mental health care into primary health care settings.
- Improve Care
Mental health champions support expanding health coverage with fair and equal coverage of mental health and substance use care. Champions also support increasing access to quality mental health care.
- Support Recovery
Mental health champions promote stable housing for people with mental illness and other community supports, such as supported employment, that help people stay on the path of recovery. Champions also know that people experiencing mental health crises need treatment, not jail, and support strategies to divert people from handcuffs to help.
Know Your Voting Rights
Mental illness can lead to disability for some people. Voters with a psychiatric or other disability have the right to:
- Vote privately and independently
- Bring someone to help them vote
- Get assistance from workers at the polling place
Some states and local areas offer other options to assist voters with disabilities, including:
- Setting up mobile polling places at long-term care facilities
- Providing transportation to the polls and identifying the accessibility of polling places, which is usually done by local organizations
- Absentee voting, so you can receive and return your absentee ballot through the mail
Find out what kind of accommodations your state or territorial election office offers.
Your right to vote in your state
Sadly, there may be some people with mental health conditions who do not have the right to vote in their state. In most cases, if a person with mental illness does not have the right to vote, it is because of actions taken by a court of law.
Below is a list of state laws concerning people with mental illness and their right to vote. State laws are often written in legal terms that may be difficult to understand or offensive. We have provided definitions for some of the legal terms for informational purposes only.
Please note that the language used by many states includes outdated and offensive language that NAMI does not support.
Conservator—A person appointed by a court of law to have authority over another person’s affairs. Depending on the state, a conservator may have authority over property, business, or personal matters
Guardian—A person who has been given the legal right and duty to take care of another individual and/or that individual's property. Guardianships are granted when a person does not have certain legal rights, such as a minor, to take care of himself and his affairs
Idiot—A person with an intellectual disability
Incapacitated—Unable to work, move, or function due to a physical or mental disability
Insane—Lack of the ability to understand that prevents a person from having the mental capacity required by law to enter into a relationship, status, or transaction or that releases one from criminal or civil responsibility
Legally incompetent—Incapable due to a mental or physical condition
Mentally incompetent—Incapable due to a mental condition
Mental handicap—A mental disability that makes achievement unusually difficult
Unsound mind—Not mentally healthy or whole
Is your state one of the many that denies people with mental health conditions the right to vote? Follow the example of mental health advocates in Kansas in 2010 and ask your state elected officials to introduce a bill like this one to give back that right.
- There is no law stopping a person living with mental illness from voting.
- A person in an institution can choose to vote either in the institution district or district of their residence prior to admission.
Register to Vote
In 2016, only 55.7% of Americans eligible to vote actually went to the polls. Many elections, especially local elections, are won by small percentages, so every vote is important, including yours.
Every mental health advocate should #Vote4MentalHealth on November 6. To do that, make sure you:
- Register to vote
- Don’t miss your state’s registration deadline
- If you are already registered, verify your registration status
- Learn more about voting inyour state
- Know the polling locations, polling hours and voter ID requirements in your state
- Learn if early voting or vote by mail is an option in your state
- Understand your voting rights
Talking to candidates prior to an election can help you determine where they stand on the issues you care about and whether they are mental health champions. Once elected, these individuals will represent you – so it is important that you know their views.
Below are some tips for educating and engaging candidates:
- Always keep it nonpartisan. NAMI is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. We take stances on policy issues, not parties or politicians. If you are holding a candidate event, invite all candidates for the position (and not just Democrats and Republicans if Independents or candidates from other parties are running).
- Seek out the candidates. In the weeks leading up to an election, candidates attend many events to meet and talk with constituents. Events such as walks, festivals and other community activities are a good opportunity to engage them in conversations about the issues.
- Bring the candidates to you. Hosting a candidate forum is a great opportunity to engage candidates and talk to them about issues related to mental health services and supports in your community. Click here to learn more about hosting a candidate forum. You may also invite candidates to other events, but be sure to follow these rules when doing so.
- Introduce the candidates to NAMI/your local organization. When speaking with a candidate, make sure you introduce yourself and NAMI. For example, you can say, “I am [name] from [city, town or county you live in] and I’m a member of NAMI [local affiliate name], part of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. We are the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.”
- Share your story, if you comfortable doing so. How your personal experience with mental illness has affected you or a loved one makes issues real to candidates. Your story helps build a personal connection with candidates and helps them remember their interaction with you.
- Highlight priorities with candidates. Find ways to highlight key policy priorities with candidates. To do so, ask open-ended questions like, “What will you do to protect mental health coverage?” or “What will you do to increase the availability of mental health services and supports in our community?” Listen carefully to their answers and acknowledge the points that they made. They may ask for your ideas, so be ready to share additional thoughts.
- Use social media for additional candidate engagement. You can also use social media to engage candidates on the issues. Below are sample social media posts that you can use. These questions can also be asked in-person and at candidate forums.
- [candidate name/handle] New policies threaten protections for people w/ pre-existing conditions, including mental illness. What will you do to protect mental health coverage, so all people can get the care they need, when they need it? #Act4MentalHealth
- [candidate name/handle] Nearly 45,000 American lives are lost every year to suicide. What will you do to increase mental health services and support services in our community to help prevent these tragedies? #Act4MentalHealth
- [candidate name/handle] It takes ~74 weeks in the U.S. to get care after first experiencing symptoms of psychosis. In the U.K., it is just ~7 weeks. What will you do to help get young people to the care they need sooner? #Act4MentalHealth
- [candidate name/handle] The #1 reason children <18 are admitted to hospitals is for depression or bipolar disorder. What will you do to help children get the mental health care they need before they reach a crisis point? #Act4MentalHealth
- [candidate name/handle] 2M Americans living w/ mental illness are jailed each year, often because they simply didn’t get needed treatment. What will you do to end the jailing of people w/ mental illness? #Act4MentalHealth
- [candidate name/handle] Jail is costly compared to community-based mental health treatment. In Detroit, a person w/ mental illness in jail costs $31,000/year, while community-based treatment costs only $10,000. What will you do to divert people with mental illness away from jail and into community-based treatment? #Act4MentalHealth
- Thank candidates for their time. After events or opportunities with candidates, thank them for their time with an email or thank you card, or even a tweet, restating your key points.
- Do not endorse candidates. As a nonprofit organization, NAMI cannot endorse candidates. Keep your activities focused on engaging the candidates on issues. Do not show favor toward one candidate or another. For more information, click here.
- Build a plan for post-election connection. Once the elections are over, build relationships with newly elected (or reelected) officials. Find time to congratulate them on their win and schedule a meeting with them and their staff to share how NAMI can be a resource to their office and their constituents.
Mobilize Mental Health Voters
Interested in helping others in your area register to vote?
Consider partnering with a local organization experienced in doing voter registration drives, like the League of Women Voters, which conducts nonpartisan drives in hundreds of communities every year. Other groups may also be willing to help you and provide you access to a new audience. For example, student groups may be interested in registering voters as part of a community service project. Remember to only partner with nonpartisan organizations.
Your local Board of Elections (often in your county or city clerk’s office) can provide information as you plan to register mental health advocates to vote. Check with them to learn about the registration deadline in your state and any rules on who can register voters in your state. You can also request voter rolls for your community, so you know who in your target audience is already registered. Your Board of Elections can also provide you with voter registration forms for your drive.
There are several ways to conduct voter registration drives:
- Include voter registration information in your regular communications to members and supporters and on your website and social media
- Hold social events that include voter registration materials and assistance
- Host voter registration and information tables at community and civic events, including NAMIWalks
As a nonprofit, all voter registration efforts must be nonpartisan. Learn more about nonpartisan voter registration strategies here.
Non-Profits and Elections
NAMI State Organizations and NAMI Affiliates are 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations. While 501(c)(3)s are prohibited from engaging in political campaign activities (activities that support the election or defeat of a candidate for office), nonprofits and their volunteers can promote and participate in a number of nonpartisan election-related activities. Below is information on dos and don’ts, as well as some FAQs, to protect your 501(c)(3) status.
What 501(c)(3) organizations can do:
- Promote voter registration/Get-Out-the-Vote efforts. 501(c)(3) organizations can conduct a voter registration drive, encourage people to register to vote in affiliate communications, provide information on how to vote or on vote-by-mail rules, and encourage people to vote through general communications about participating in the election (though not in support of or against a candidate).
For more information, click here.
- Host candidate forums. Candidate forums are an excellent way to elevate mental health issues during the election season and learn what strategies candidates will take to address key policy issues surrounding mental health. Click here to find more tips for hosting a nonpartisan candidate forum.
- Send out candidate questionnaires. Sending out candidate questionnaires can be a great way to learn candidates’ proposals regarding mental health policy issues. However, these questionnaires should ask about a broad range of issues, include open-ended (and neutral) questions, and be shared without edits or comments. As a nonprofit, these responses should not be rank-ordered, and they can only be shared if more than one candidate responds. Learn more about candidate questionnaire rules for nonprofits here.
- Share NAMI’s positions on the issues. Share information on NAMI’s position on key policy issues and encourage your members to ask candidates questions about these issues. Members may attend candidate events and ask candidates questions about mental health policy priorities. You can share sample questions with your members, but remind them to be nonpartisan if they are representing NAMI. Click here to learn more about NAMI’s policy priorities.
- Educate your staff, Board members and volunteers on election rules. Your staff, leaders and volunteers represent NAMI, so it is important they understand what they can and cannot do when they have their “NAMI hat” on. Share these FAQs with your staff, Board members and volunteers.
What 501(c)(3) organizations should avoid:
- Do not endorse or oppose a candidate—or appear to be favoring or disfavoring one candidate or party over another.
- Example: A candidate mentions what he will do for mental health in a speech. His opponent does not mention mental health at all. In this circumstance, you should not comment on either candidate or link to a candidate’s speech.
- Example: Both parties release a party platform that mentions mental health. Since both platforms mention mental health, you may provide access to or copies of the platforms to your members—but you may not comment on either platform’s provisions.
- Example: Both candidates for the same elected office talked about or provided answers to questions on mental health. In this circumstance, you can provide both candidates’ commentary or answers—but without commentary or unbalanced placement.
- Do not make a campaign contribution to, or an expenditure for, a candidate from NAMI. It is not legal under any circumstance to contribute NAMI funds to a candidate. Additionally, NAMI may not use any staff time, office resources, etc. to support a candidate. Individual staff or board members may contribute personal funds to candidates. If your title and organization are requested, ask that they be listed on any websites or reporting as “FOR IDENTIFICATION PURPOSES ONLY.”
- Do not rate candidates on who is most favorable to NAMI’s issues or publicize which candidates share NAMI’s views.
- Example: You want to create a voting record on mental health issues. There are some narrow circumstances when you may publish a voting record, but before an election is not advisable for a nonprofit.
- Do not host a candidate forum or event unless candidates of both parties or the majority of candidates for an office are able to attend.
- Example: You invite all candidates for your state representative seat, but only one can make it. You should either reschedule for a time that the majority of or all candidates for the office can be present or cancel the event. If there is only one candidate running for a seat, you may invite him or her to an event.
- Do not ask candidates detailed questions that have a “right or wrong” answer that would signal alignment or nonalignment with NAMI’s positions. Ask open-ended questions only.