By Rob Waters
For the second year in a row, mental health played a leading role in a State of the Union message delivered by President Joe Biden. One year ago, Biden outlined a four-part “unity agenda” that focused largely on tackling the mental health and opioid crises at a time of deep psychological suffering and the continuing Covid-19 pandemic.
Last night, Biden didn’t quite take a victory lap, but he did highlight his administration’s achievements in getting legislation through Congress that provides what he called “historic investments” in mental health. He also vowed to continue working to reduce suicides among both active-duty military and veterans.
And in a country still reeling from the savage killing of Tyre Nichols, the 27-year-old Black man beaten to death last month by Memphis police, he devoted the most emotional and personal lines of his speech to the historic and continuing trauma experienced by so many people of color at the hands of police.
“Imagine what it’s like to lose a child at the hands of the law,” he said, speaking directly to Nichols’ parents, seated at his invitation in the second-floor gallery of the chamber. “Imagine having to worry whether your son or daughter will come home from walking down the street or playing in the park or just driving their car.”
Biden noted that as a white man, he’s never had to have “The Talk” with his kids “that so many Black and brown families have had with their children.” He added: “Imagine having to worry like that every day in America.”
For the low-income communities of color that are often under heavy police patrol, Biden called for “more first responders and other professionals” and for greater resources to reduce violence and gun crime and to support housing, job training and community intervention programs.
For the police who patrol these neighborhoods, he called for more training and greater accountability.
“When police officers or departments violate the public’s trust, we must hold them accountable,” Biden said.
In a tweak at Congressional Republicans, the president noted that he had signed an executive order barring federal law enforcement from using chokeholds and restricting the use of no-knock warrants. Those measures were part of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, named for the Black man killed by Minneapolis police in 2020, that passed the Democratic-controlled House in 2020 but later died in the Senate.
In the aftermath of Nichols’ killing, Democrats plan to reintroduce the bill in Congress. It would, among other measures, limit no-knock warrants and chokeholds, create a national database for office misconduct allegations, increase the use of body cameras and restrict the use of qualified immunity that protects officers from individual liability.
Last week, Biden called on Congress to pass the measure. “I think we should do it right now,” he said in impromptu remarks. “We should have done it before.”
Children’s mental health was also prominently mentioned, again. In his first State of the Union address, Biden called on Congress “to take on mental health — especially among our children.” This year, he echoed that refrain.
“When millions of young people are struggling with bullying, violence, trauma,” Biden said, “we owe them greater access to mental health care at school.”
He called on Congress to pass legislation that would ban technology companies from aiming advertising at children and from collecting personal data about them.
While he didn’t repeat the call for “full parity between physical and mental health care” he made in last year’s speech, a fact sheet released by the White House yesterday announced that, this spring, the administration will propose new rules aimed at health insurance companies. The rules would keep insurers from imposing barriers on mental health care and make sure that health plans pay mental health providers on par with other health care providers.
Military mental health was also a prime topic. While the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs (V.A.) both reported declines in the rate of suicides among members of the armed forces and veterans, Biden said the numbers remain far too high.
A fact sheet released by the White House noted that since 2010, more than 71,000 veterans have committed suicide — a number that exceeds total U.S. combat deaths during the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan combined.
In another strategy aimed at addressing the mental health and suicide crisis among veterans, the V.A. will increase the use of peer specialists providing support to veterans. The department is on track to hire 280 peer specialists by the end of this year, according to the fact sheet,
“We cannot go on losing 17 veterans a day to the silent scourge of suicide,” Biden said.