By Sita Diehl, NAMI Director of State Policy and Advocacy
Election campaigns are supposed to be dialogues between candidates and voters. It’s very important to vote on Tuesday, Nov. 6 (or early if your state allows it), but it’s also important to keep the dialogue about mental health care going after the election.
“You’re the boss,” said my congressman, U.S. Representative Jim Cooper, to me when I asked how comments from voters influence his position on issues. He’s got a point, although that does mean he has many “bosses” and I have to speak up to have an impact. So I email him regularly with questions and to express concerns. He always responds sometimes agreeing with me, sometimes not, often adding information to illustrate the issue. We continue the conversation at community forums and I visit his office from time to time.
I’d like to share our recent conversation on the importance of voting.
Rep. Cooper: “I’m a hired hand with about 700,000 bosses. All of their thoughts are important and I try to make decisions that put our country first. It starts with your vote. These are difficult times, but we live in the greatest country on earth and we can solve our problems. It takes patience, moderation, a willingness to work with others, compassion for the most vulnerable and fact-based discussions about our nation’s future.”
SD: What about Americans who don’t think their vote matters?
Rep. Cooper: “Every vote counts. Some elections have been decided by just a few votes. It’s Americans’ civic duty to pick elected officials and we must all do our part. Mark your calendar. Before work, after work, or between errands; make a plan to vote and follow it through. I took my 93-year-old mother to vote on the first day of early voting. We never miss an election.”
SD: What if they don’t know who to vote for?
Rep. Cooper: “Research is critical. If you don’t know the people on the ballot or the job description of the position, do a little homework. It’s important to make informed decisions so you can pick who would best represent you.”
SD: What if they can’t get to the polls?
Rep. Cooper: “Check requirements to vote via absentee ballot by contacting your local election commission. Or, you can call a friend, family member or neighbor to see if they’ll join you at the polls. Many local organizations and political parties also provide free rides to polls.”
SD: After the election, how can NAMI members most effectively engage legislators?
Rep. Cooper: “Send introductory letters to newly elected officials and engage with their staff. It’s important to build relationships and begin a dialogue.”
SD: How can NAMI members determine where their officials stand on the issues?
Rep. Cooper: “Again, research is critical. This is where your relationship with the staff comes into play. If you can’t find the answers, request a meeting and ask any questions that you have. My staff is here to serve the people of my district, and is always happy to answer questions that folks have.”
SD: Why should voters connect with elected officials on health care issues?
Rep. Cooper: “Health care is a personal and often emotional issue. It’s important for elected officials to hear from the people they represent. It’s just as important for Americans to understand the laws being debated. Many emails that our office receives contain misinformation, so we spend a lot of time debunking myths and trying to help people understand how health care laws work. I would encourage people to call or write their elected officials not only to express their viewpoints, but to ask questions and to learn about health care bills. Congressional offices are always happy to answer questions from constituents.”
SD: What is the most effective way to communicate with you?
Rep. Cooper: “Email is the most cost-effective way, but letters and phone calls are good, too. Our office reads each letter and email that is sent to us, so I can promise that when constituents write in, we pay attention to them. Each year we receive fewer handwritten, personal letters. While we read all correspondence, including form letters, it’s always nice when someone takes the time to write a heartfelt note.”
SD: What messages impact your decision making?
Rep Cooper: “Know the other side to your argument. If you want your elected official to support a bill, know how much it costs and how it is being funded. Know which groups both support and oppose it, and why. Elected officials have to weigh pros and cons of all sides before making a decision.”
Like my congressman, I have already voted, so on Election Day I will help others get to the polls. After the election, he and I will continue our conversation. He probably will challenge me as much as I challenge him.
That’s where all of us need to come in together. Elected officials need to hear first-hand about the real-life experience of individuals and families who have been affected by mental illness. They need to hear about barriers to care and about what helps and doesn’t help people. Statistics, legal and legislative analysis have a role when elected officials make a decision, but real, personal stories - brief and to the point – move both their hearts and minds.
That’s how democracy works. Remember to vote, but also keep up the conversation after Election Day.