You may have heard that a couple of Kentuckians have been trying to rebrand the Commonwealth from “Unbridled Spirit” to “Kentucky Kicks Ass.” Unfortunately, Senator Mitch McConnell’s latest re-election strategies are demonstrating that where mental health is concerned, Kentucky is a long way from kicking much of anything.
Mother Jones just released audiotapes from a private meeting where the Senator and his aides were discussing how to engage in a political game of “Whac-a-Mole” with potential Democratic candidates. In discussions of actress Ashley Judd, who was considering a run for McConnell’s Senate seat earlier this year, the conversation turned to how the McConnell campaign could use her past history with serious depression – including suicidal thoughts and a 42-day hospitalization – to declare her “emotionally unbalanced” and therefore, presumably, unfit to serve in office. Never mind the fact that Senator McConnell represents the state that ranks 3rd highest in the country for depression rates and 18th in suicide rates. Apparently, when it comes to saving a Senate seat, anything is fair game.
I’ve already seen folks online saying, “That’s politics,” and, if she’s going to be open about it, Judd should expect that it might come around to “kick her in the ass” (pun intended) when the campaign mud-slinging ensued. To be honest, I’m not really worried about Ms. Judd. She’s already demonstrated she can handle herself, and I’m confident she does not need an apology from Senator McConnell to fall asleep tonight.
Who I am worried about are the nearly 45,000 Kentuckians who struggle with depression daily and are afraid to seek treatment because of what someone might think or say. I’m especially concerned for the rural residents I met when I worked in Kentucky. They often refused treatment because there is one mental health care provider in their county, and if a neighbor sees their car in that parking lot, the whole town will think they are “crazy.” Now their senior Senator has underscored these individuals’ very fears. These taped conversations reflect a belief that if you share your mental health status – past or present – you should be prepared for a bop on the head designed to send you underground from whence you came.
Now don’t get me wrong. Senator McConnell has been a strong ally for Kentucky in Congress. He does an amazing job of bringing federal tax dollars to support the Commonwealth. Ironically, in my previous faculty position I used funds he earmarked for the University of Kentucky to develop a statewide depression awareness program, Blue to You. Depending on the backlash from these tapes, I’m certain a savvy political advisor will find our acknowledgment of him on our site and say that this demonstrates the Senator is very supportive of people with depression – and has been for a long time. I hope another savvy political advisor will find this post and learn that the Senator earmarked funds for the overall Health Education through Extension Leadership (HEEL) program, but he did not specifically fund my depression awareness project. In fact, I had to present my proposed idea before the HEEL advisory board, which included state stakeholders and various university administrators. Some members were initially concerned about county agents providing depression information, despite the fact that they were already educating about dental health, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. When I noted that the conversation we were having – whether providing mental health information was different from providing physical health information – was exactly the reason we needed Blue to You, I received the green light to proceed.
We have had government officials who are survivors of cancer, blood clots, and heart attacks, who have obesity and diabetes. These diseases typically occur from a combination of genetic predisposition and poor health behaviors. Frequently medication and changes in health habits must be combined for effective treatment. When treated appropriately, most people can – and do – function fully both mentally and physically. Depression is no different. And characterizations otherwise only serve to fuel the stigma and fear upon which the Ashley Judd comments were founded.
No, I don’t think Senator McConnell needs to apologize to Ms. Judd. But I do think he needs to apologize to the tens of thousands of Kentuckians who will have trouble falling asleep tonight wondering what others might say if they knew, or whether they should bother telling their doctor, or if what they’re feeling and thinking is all in their head. Even better (a girl can dream), maybe the Senator will use Ms. Judd as a courageous example of speaking out, the importance of getting treatment, and highlighting his role in getting the mental health parity act passed in Congress.
Whatever McConnell chooses to do, I hope he remembers that nearly 15 percent of the people he represents in the Commonwealth experience significant psychological distress. Every. Single. Day. He is their voice too. May it not go silent.
Contributor (and Kentucky Colonel) Leigh Ann Simmons, Ph.D. is a writer, speaker, teacher, and activist who has spent her career working with and on behalf of women. Her professional experience spans 15 years in academic and medical research, therapy and coaching with individuals, couples, families and groups, university-level teaching, and advocating for those in need. Currently an associate professor in the Duke University School of Nursing, Leigh Ann has published and presented nationally and internationally on issues affecting women, including health and well-being, access to health care, reducing health disparities, job flexibility, and social welfare policy. In addition to her work at Duke, Leigh Ann provides individual health coaching to women of all ages and consulting to healthcare providers on working with patients to improve health behaviors. In her spare time, Leigh Ann enjoys eating and playing in her hometown of Durham, NC, yoga, pilates, shopping with her mom, and spending quality time with the men in her life – her husband, son, and chocolate lab. She aspires to be known by a mononym before she retires. Learn more about Leigh Ann at leighannsimmons.com.
The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not reflect the policy or position of her employer.