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Pa. congresswoman: After my partner died of suicide, mental health issues became my focus | Opinion

Congresswoman Susan Wild explains why her proposed legislation is close to her heart.

Rep. Susan Wild revealed in a speech on Wednesday, June 26, 2019,  that the death of her partner was a suicide. She called for more attention to mental health care.
Rep. Susan Wild revealed in a speech on Wednesday, June 26, 2019, that the death of her partner was a suicide. She called for more attention to mental health care.Read moreScreenshot

In May 2019, on what felt like an otherwise normal Saturday, the unthinkable happened when my life partner, Kerry Acker, died by suicide.

When I was elected to Congress just six months earlier, I never expected that mental health issues would be a top focus of my work.

But I’m a big believer in following the path that life takes you on, and after Kerry’s death, I made mental health one of my most important priorities.

This focus has led me to have countless conversations with suicide-prevention advocates and those who have survived suicide attempts and now make it their life’s work to educate their communities about this epidemic. It has dramatically increased my awareness of the difficult reality for people who face mental health challenges, and that these challenges do not discriminate among communities in this country, disregarding income, background, or demographic.

» READ MORE: ‘I do not want anyone else to suffer:’ Susan Wild's 2019 speech on mental health

In speaking out about Kerry’s death, I hope to remind people who are suffering that they are not alone and that they can, and should, get help: The research shows that decreasing the stigma around mental health challenges is an important first step to help save lives.

But decreasing the stigma alone is not enough. This first step must coincide with improving access to the mental health resources for all those that need them — and for students on college campuses, resources can be hard to come by.

For many young people, college or university marks the first time they will be on their own, sometimes far away from the essential support systems they have relied on for their entire lives. College can be scary, isolating, and intense, socially, academically, and otherwise. Among the United States’ 21 million college and university students , two-thirds report struggling with loneliness, and 83% said their mental health had negatively impacted their academic performance. From 2019 to 2020, approximately 36.9% of college and university students who received mental health services had seriously considered suicide.

The COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified this crisis affecting students. Remote schooling can leave students to suffer in silence, without peer groups or mentors for support. Disruptions from the public health and economic tolls of the last two years have also increased the mental health challenges among students, and a recent National Institutes of Health survey reported that 71% of college students said the pandemic increased their stress and anxiety.

It’s time for Congress to tackle this growing problem and give America’s students the support and resources they deserve. I am proud to be introducing the bipartisan Enhancing Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Through Campus Planning Act alongside my colleague Congressman Fred Keller (R., Pa.) to do just that: Ensure that no student suffers alone.

This bill would help fill the gap in unmet mental health needs of college students by providing resources to institutions of higher learning to develop and implement comprehensive mental health and suicide prevention plans, with support from the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services.

But most important, passing this bill would send a powerful message to America’s students that help is available.

From Olympic stars like Simone Biles, to Capitol Police officers, to frontline health-care workers, burnout and mental health crisis can impact anyone. But as I said on the floor of the House of Representatives in the days after Kerry’s death: “Removing the stigma cannot just be a slogan. We need to make it real through our actions.”

It’s time we take action to protect the mental health of our students.

Susan Wild represents Pennsylvania’s 7th District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

If you or someone you know is thinking of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text TALK to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.