Our upcoming national elections, now just a score plus two days away, likely will be the most consequential for the behavioral health and intellectual/developmental disability fields in many decades or even, perhaps, a century or longer. Clearly, we are at a very major fork in our American road. The direction we take literally will determine our future course for many years to come.
Equally important, this election not only will determine who will become our next president, but also who will represent us in the Senate and House of the U.S. Congress, as well as in our state, county, and city offices. All of these officials will play important roles in setting our future course.
Hence, we carefully should assess the candidates for each of these positions.
Perhaps the most fundamental question we need to ask ourselves about each candidate is whether she/he values all people equally. This is the core proposition of social justice and the bedrock of efforts to promote equity. Most work that our fields undertake seeks to enhance equity and reduce disparities. We must elect officials who understand disparities and equity, and who can appreciate the very positive benefits of promoting a more equitable country, state, county, or city.
Almost as important is whether each candidate has a contemporary understanding of the conditions we address and the pitfalls of stigma. Mental health and substance use conditions, and intellectual/developmental disabilities are not personal weaknesses, moral imperfections, or signs of evil. They are illnesses that require modern care systems. Our elected officials must understand this relationship, as well as the pivotal process of recovery.
We also want to ask ourselves about the capacity of each candidate to work collaboratively with other elected officials in seeking a common social good. Will she/he be willing to set aside ideological differences, seek to build consensus, promote practical actions, and share credit for positive accomplishments? Our elected officials must be able to lead through consensus building.
And what is each candidate likely to do when confronted with opposition? Will she/he stand on principle and maintain a stance that reasonable people would agree is the right thing to do, despite vocal opposition from other elected officials, from the media, or from constituents? We need elected officials who can display appropriate courage in the face of adversity.
What capacity does each candidate have to demonstrate personal respect toward other people? Specifically, does she/he show respect toward women, blacks and other minorities, persons with disabilities, children, and elderly persons? If we are to overcome our differences, we require elected officials who can demonstrate this respect consistently in their public and personal lives.
How well does each candidate envision and articulate a path toward a more positive future—one with greater equity, fewer disparities in health, wellbeing, and income, and enhanced inter-group respect, cooperation, and friendship? If our elected officials do not have the capacity to articulate such a vision, or at least some of its major components, a future with these characteristics will remain only a distant hope.