Daniel Thatcher had three best friends when he went to high school in West Valley City, Utah, in the 1990s, and they did everything together. In their junior year, the group shrank from four to three when one of them, a teenager named Travis, took his own life. For Thatcher, Travis’s death began a long journey of coming to terms with his own mental health struggles and thinking about how to help others.
Thatcher was devastated by his high school friend’s death, and he also had his own troubles. “I was struggling with chronic depression [but] I didn’t know what that was,” he said. “We didn’t talk about mental health in the 90s.” What he did know is that he could barely get out of bed to attend school and that “I was unhappy all the time and I didn’t know why.”
Now, as a three-term Utah State Senator and a founding co-chair of a new mental health caucus composed of state legislators from across the country, Thatcher is in a position to do something about such concerns and affect national policy.
In fact, he already has. Thatcher’s push for a three-digit phone line that could serve as an alternative to 911 for mental health crises went national after his push to create such a system in Utah was frustrated. Thatcher’s mentor and fellow Republican, former U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch, encouraged him to think bigger. Hatch brought the idea to Congress, where he co-introduced the bill that ultimately led to the creation of the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline that went into operation in July.
Thatcher is still haunted by what might have been if he and Travis had simply talked to each other about their mental health, if he had shared with Travis that he, too, was suffering. “If Travis had told me he was not okay,” Thatcher said, “I would have run through a brick wall to help him.”
In 2013, two years into his career as a state senator, he had a chance to help another teen who was suffering. A friend called from the parking lot of a hospital emergency room. “Senator,” he said, “I need to talk to you.” At 3 a.m. that morning, the friend’s 15-year-old son had handed him a noose and said, “‘Dad, I’ve been up all night trying not to kill myself,’” Thatcher recalled.
The single father had just been turned away from the hospital and didn’t know where to turn. Thatcher and his staff began making their own calls and eventually lined up an appointment for the boy at the University of Utah facility now known as the Huntsman Mental Health Institute. Clinicians there performed an assessment and created a treatment plan.
The fact that it took the intervention of a state senator to find a place that could help him – a place that the ER staff in the hospital apparently didn’t know about – disturbed Thatcher. He wondered why no one seemed to know where a person experiencing a mental health crisis could get help.
“That started my crusade to get a three digit number,” he said. “My thinking is that the smallest child – if they know where a phone is – they can get police, fire and ambulance. [But] where do you turn for mental health? And the answer is, nobody knows.”
In recent years, Thatcher has also helped to shape a robust crisis response system in the state, involving mobile crisis outreach teams, or MCOTs, that go to the site of a person experiencing a mental health emergency. Due to the shortage of social workers – a problem every state is grappling with – Utah is now creating the mental health equivalent of an EMT.
Thatcher is passionate about spreading the word and helping other states improve their mental health crisis response systems. So he was delighted to be asked to co-chair the newly-formed State Legislative Mental Health Caucus initiated by Inseparable, a coalition that is working to increase access to mental health care across the country by influencing policy at both the state and federal levels.
Inseparable is the brainchild of Bill Smith, a longtime political activist who helped shape strategy in the marriage-equality movement and four years ago lost his brother, Jack, to suicide. The former editor and publisher of the Eufaula Tribune in Alabama, Jack suffered from bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety, but could never find the right treatment, even though his family had abundant resources, Smith said.
Around the same time, Smith met another family that had recently lost a child to suicide. Together, they began investigating ways to improve the mental health landscape to ensure more families didn’t suffer as they had.
“One of the things that jumped out at me was there were so many brilliant people working in mental health,” he said. “They knew the solutions that we needed to put into place to fix our broken approach to mental health, but they didn’t have experience in building the power to get it done.”
Smith observed that while there was no shortage of mental health advocacy groups, they were missing a key piece – political power. “What we need to do,” he said, “is bring people together to actually build a social and political movement for mental health.”
To Smith, that meant putting together a “good inside game” to influence policy in the halls of power, and augment that by involving and telling the stories of families who have been affected by mental illness. One such family member, and a co-founder of Inseparable, is Zak Williams, the son of comedian Robin Williams, who took his own life in 2014 at the age of 63.
“The idea behind Inseparable is pretty basic,” Smith says. “The health of our minds can’t be separated from the health of our bodies. And we’ve got to demand better policy that allows us to take care of each other.”
The group is focused on three priorities, Smith says. It seeks to eliminate the treatment gap – “the things that stand in the way of people getting access to the care they need”; to create comprehensive prevention and early intervention systems, especially by strengthening school-based mental health services; and to stop the criminalization of mental illness and improve the capacity crisis response through systems like 988.
The group has hired statehouse lobbyists in five states, leading to the passage of laws boosting school mental health services in Delaware, Illinois and Alabama, Smith said. Work in New Jersey and Alaska has hit snags but is continuing, he said.
The biggest successes so far have come in Delaware, where Inseparable and NAMI Delaware, an affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, have helped push through three laws. One will provide more counselors, psychologists and mental health professionals in middle schools. Another requires health insurers to cover annual wellness checks for kids. The third requires schools to include age-appropriate curriculum about mental health to provide young people with basic information.
Democrat Valerie Longhurst, a member of the Delaware General Assembly since 2004 and the majority leader since 2012, sponsored those bills. Now she will co-chair the new national mental health caucus.
Longhurst also works as executive director of the Police Athletic League of Delaware, an after-school program for at-risk kids, and has been teaching a class on suicide and violence prevention. She said kids at the program were increasingly hungry to discuss the issues – but that she felt unqualified. “These kids need somebody more than me to be talking to,” Longhurst said.
When she looked at how many school counselors and psychologists there are, she found the numbers fell far short of experts’ recommendations. She backed HB 100, which mandated that Delaware elementary schools maintain a ratio of one counselor for every 250 students and one psychologist for every 700 students, to be funded from the $8 million the 2022 budget included to hire mental health professionals in those schools. It was signed into law in August 2021.
Another package of three bills backed by Inseparable and signed into law last month offered a similar boost to mental health professionals in Delaware middle schools. The package also creates educational programs for grades K-12 and requires insurance carriers to cover annual wellness checks for every insured person.
Longhurst says that too many mentally ill people are left untreated and end up in jail or addicted to drugs when they try to medicate their illness. “We’re going downstream and putting a bandaid on it,” she said. “We should be going upstream and putting the resources in the schools.”
So far, 42 state legislators from 20 states – 10 Republicans and 32 Democrats – have signed on to be part of the caucus. Though Longhurst and Thatcher come from opposite sides of the aisle – as do their other co-chairs, New Jersey Democrat Vin Gopal and Texas Republican J.M Lozano – they are united by their commitment and interest in mental health.
Both want to see the caucus explore issues and share experiences so legislators can learn from each other across state and party lines. Indeed, in a deeply polarized time, mental health has emerged as one of the few issues where policymakers can come together in a bipartisan way.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat – either in your personal life, your family or someone you know, you’ve seen people struggling with mental health issues,” says Smith, Inseparable’s founder. “What we’ve found is there are Republicans and Democrats who fight about a lot of other stuff, but they care about mental health. So what we’re doing is equipping them to reach across the aisle, work together and fix our broken approach to mental health in this country.”