Kennedy: Foulkes is the mental health leader RI needs | Opinion


Editor’s note: With some open column slots this spring and summer, we’re asking supporters of various candidates for governor to give their perspective on those running.

If you have watched one of her interviews or seen her ads on television, you likely are already aware that Helena Buonanno Foulkes is running in the Democratic primary for governor to make Rhode Island more affordable, invest $1 billion in its public schools, and create a green economy where all Rhode Islanders have the opportunity to begin on great careers. Her remarkable experience as an executive at CVS, where she managed 200,000 employees and $80 billion in sales, along with her track record of getting big things done, such as leading CVS’ decision to hold themselves accountable to their mission as a health care company and stop selling tobacco, is a testament to her strength as a leader. This should inspire confidence in all Rhode Islanders that she is up to the task.

What you may not be aware of is Helena’s deep understanding of all facets of the health care industry and her steadfast commitment to addressing Rhode Islanders’ mental health needs. While the state made significant progress under Gov. Raimondo, there is no question that mental health supports have been significantly underfunded and under-resourced for decades. Despite the hard work of tenacious advocates and employees at Federally Qualified Health Centers such as Thundermist, Rhode Islanders struggling with mental health and/or substance use challenges often find themselves living on the streets, imprisoned, or dying decades too soon. Inequities in access to mental health care persist not only in Rhode Island but across the country, and existed long before COVID-19. But there can be no question that the pandemic has pushed a struggling system to the precipice of calamity.

Rhode Island is currently facing an unprecedented mental health crisis. Providing compassionate, thoughtful leadership to address it must be a priority of the next governor. Last month, Bradley Hospital, Hasbro Children’s Hospital, the Rhode Island chapter of The American Academy of Pediatrics, and the Rhode Island Council of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry declared for the first time ever a state of emergency due to the state’s inability to provide adequate and timely mental health care services to children and adolescents. Last year, more Rhode Islanders died by accidental overdose than any other year on record. Stories of hours-long waits at emergency rooms and treatment facilities at maximum capacity are alarmingly common.

Foulkes is prepared to lead Rhode Island through this crisis on day one. Critically, she knows that mental health cannot be addressed in a vacuum, but must be a key factor in all policy decisions, from housing to education to workforce training. She understands the urgency of this work and has already called for historic investments in school psychologists and counselors that would ensure every single public school in the state has resources to support its students at an appropriate ratio. She is committed to closing disparities in access to mental health and addiction care, and through job training initiatives, will create a strong pipeline of providers in every community so that Rhode Islanders can get the care they need close to home.

Nearly 60 years ago, President Kennedy said that people with mental illness and developmental delays had become “alien to our affections,” and called upon leaders to end the neglect. More than a half century later, the chronic neglect of people with mental health and substance use disorders remains a serious public health issue, social justice issue and economic issue. Rhode Island needs a leader with the compassion, understanding, and resolve to tackle these challenges head on. Helena Foulkes will get the job done.

Train US Rep. (D-RI) Patrick J. Kennedy was lead author of the landmark Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act. He is a former member of the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis.

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