Nearly six months after Rep. Jamie B. Raskin lost his son to suicide, the Maryland congressman joined Gov. Larry Hogan and state lawmakers Monday to unveil the state’s new mental health support program named in the young man’s memory.
The goal, lawmakers said, is to more proactively offer community mental health services to prevent crises, particularly at a time when state psychiatric hospital beds are at acutely high capacity and as the pandemic exacts a bruising toll on mental health nationwide.
“We were so moved and inspired by the idea,” said Raskin (D). “We said, of course we would be honored to have you name it after Tommy, and that would be a beautiful and enduring legacy for him to make Maryland a state where not only do you have somewhere to go if you’re in crisis, but where the state then continues to reach out to you.”
Raskin’s son died on Dec. 31 after a long fight with depression, telling his family in a note, “Please forgive me. My illness won today.”
A devotee of Effective Altruism, the 25-year-old law student also asked, “Please look after each other” — a plea that Raskin, Hogan (R) and state lawmakers said they hoped would take root in the new mental health support program.
State Sen. Craig J. Zucker (D-Montgomery), the sponsor of the bill, said Tommy’s death “shook my family to the core.”
“I remember turning to my wife, saying, ‘We’ve got to do something,’ ” he said during a news conference.
Shortly after the death, Zucker, state Sen. Malcolm L. Augustine (D-Prince George’s) and Del. Bonnie L. Cullison (D-Montgomery) proposed a program that would mirror Maryland’s wellness check-ins for senior citizens.
Under the new law, any Marylander can sign up to receive periodic calls from 211 crisis counselors. The counselor can connect the person with services in the community if the person is interested, or just chat if everything appears to be fine.
It was the first bill Hogan signed into law after the General Assembly session this spring.
“We aren’t just memorializing Tommy’s memory. We’re also ensuring that his name will forever be a symbol of hope for others who are struggling with mental health issues,” Hogan said. “Particularly after all we’ve been through over these past 16 months, it is critically important that we continue to focus on the issue of mental health.”
Dan Martin, senior director of public policy at the Mental Health Association of Maryland, said in an interview that the proactive service comes at a crucial time, as calls to crisis hotlines have dramatically spiked during the pandemic in Maryland and nationwide.
Mental health crisis calls to Maryland’s 211 system increased 61 percent in the last quarter of 2020 compared with the same time period in 2019, while texts seeking help were up 47 percent and chats were up 154 percent, according to a March legislative presentation from the Maryland Department of Health. Nationwide, the National Alliance on Mental Illness reported in February that calls and messages to its HelpLine were up 70 percent compared with 2019.
“These last 14 months have been really traumatic. Isolation. Loss of income. Grief resulting from the loss of loved ones,” Martin said in an interview. “All of these things are having a really profound impact on our mental health. Obviously these numbers have been going up for years, but the pandemic really did cause a spike.”
In neighboring Virginia it’s been no different; the state’s nine psychiatric hospitals are operating at an average of 98 percent capacity.
Martin said that even as the pandemic recedes, he anticipates the demand for mental health services will stay strong.
“Research has shown the mental and emotional impact of large-scale traumatic events, like this pandemic, often show up farther down the road,” he said. “Even though people are getting vaccinated and back out there, that trauma from the past year is going to continue. So the more resources we have in place for people that need them, the better off we’ll be.”
Raskin said that with so many young people across the United States reporting mental health difficulties during the pandemic, “we’ve got to get over the idea that there’s any shame or stigma connected to it.”
“I was thinking about how Tommy used to say, ‘It’s hard to be human,’ ” he said. “And this legislation makes it a little bit easier to be human, in the state of Maryland, because it lets all of our people know that the state is listening.”
To preregister for the 211 check-in program, text “HealthCheck” to 211MD1 (211631).
If you or someone you know needs help now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. You can also reach a crisis counselor by texting 741741 to the Crisis Text Line.