Air Date

March 28, 2023

Featured Guest

Debbie Stabenow
United States Senator, State of Michigan


Evan H. Jenkins
Former Senior Vice President, Government Affairs, U.S. Chamber of Commerce


Mental health has been an ongoing issue in the U.S., impacting both individuals and their families. Debbie Stabenow, United States Senator of the State of Michigan, has dedicated her career to addressing mental health by supporting and spearheading initiatives like the Children's Mental Health Act, Family Support Subsidy Act, Excellence in Mental Health and Addiction Treatment Act, Mental Health Parity Provisions of the Affordable Care Act, and more.

In a discussion with Evan Jenkins at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce event on mental health, Sen. Stabenow discussed the work she’s done and continues to do to improve mental health services within America — and how the rest of the country can contribute to such initiatives.

Mental Health Issues Impact Individuals and Families

Sen. Stabenow grew up in rural Michigan during a time when mental health was not a well-known or received topic. However, her father began experiencing bipolar symptoms when she was only in middle school.

“At that time, there was no knowledge about chemical imbalance in the brain that can cause you to have highs and lows,” she said. 

It wasn’t until she was in college that her father got the treatment and stabilizing medication he needed, helping him successfully return to work.

“I saw what happened when you don't get the care that you need and when you do — and what happens to the family,” she said. “That put me on a path basically of wanting to do everything that I could to help others be able to get the support that they and their families need in terms of mental health.”

Treating Mental Health As Healthcare Generally

Sen. Stabenow began to question why mental health and addiction were funded through grants and operated as a start-and-stop issue. In other words, mental health did not (and still does not, in many cases) receive the same attention physical health did. In fact, many patients seeking mental health treatment are turned away by hospitals due to low funding. 

“Mental health is healthcare,” said Sen. Stabenow. “It's healthcare above the neck. We should be treating healthcare above the neck the same as healthcare below the neck.”

Sen. Stabenow noted that in the past, Medicaid would cover a patient if they were seriously mentally ill. However, determining the severity of a case is difficult and can lead to a lack of necessary care for the individual. 

“[My colleague and I] basically created the same format for behavioral health [as the one for physical health]: high-quality standards,” she said. “You meet the standards, and then your clinic is fully-funded.”

“When we have comprehensive quality services, people are getting the help that they need, and we aren't paying for other services that, first of all, are just a holding pattern,” she continued. “They are not effectively helping that individual or their family.”

Sen. Stabenow mentioned that even though she and other officials have worked to help teach police officers, teachers, and other professionals how to identify mental health issues, “if they have nowhere to refer them, then it's not gonna work.”

“You have to have somewhere to refer people,” she said. “And so this answers the question of comprehensive care in the community, which is why it's so important.”

Funding Behavioral Health Is a Nationwide Transformation 

Sen. Stabenow recalled that it’s been 60 years since President John F. Kennedy passed the Community Mental Health Act, which intended to accomplish what Sen. Stabenow and her team have now achieved.

“On the 50th anniversary, Sen. Blunt and I went to the floor and introduced our bill,” she said. “President Kennedy said we need to serve people in the community closer to home with quality services … But what we have done is also show that it actually works.”

This started with an eight-state demonstration project, which eventually added two more states, the opening of 500 individual clinics funded through grants, gun safety legislation, and more mental health initiatives. 

“We are taking this until it is a nationwide transformation where we are funding behavioral health as healthcare … and working with the community, with the business community, with law enforcement, with our healthcare community, to make sure it is integrated and therefore cost-effective,” she said.