Rep. Jamie Raskin — Congress & Mental Health

rep. raskin with president biden ahead of the passage of the bipartisan infrastructure law
Rep. Raskin with President Biden ahead of the passage of the bipartisan Infrastructure law

Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin got an early introduction to politics. His father served as a staff aide to President John F. Kennedy on the National Security Council, was a progressive activist and was co-founder of the progressive think tank, Institute for Policy Studies. Raskin initially eschewed a political career. Instead he became a constitutional law professor after graduating magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, where he was an editor of the Harvard Law Review.

All of this changed with the 2006 election for the Maryland Senate. Raskin felt a moral duty to challenge the incumbent, who he did not believe represented the values of his community, a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C. True to Raskin legacy, he not only focused his campaign on progressive causes such as marriage equality and repeal of the death penalty, but also used the campaign to create the Democracy Summer Program, a fellowship that is now nationwide, that provides a broader civic education opportunity for high school and college students to learn about, experience, and become personally invested in the political process–campaigning, voter registration, political organizing, understanding the history of political change in our country, and hands-on development of the tools for future leadership.

In the 2016 election, Raskin moved from the Maryland legislature to the U.S. House of Representatives, elected as the U.S. Representative for Maryland’s 8th congressional district. Among other congressional duties, Raskin is currently the ranking member of the Committee on Oversight and Accountability, the main investigative committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, with the mission to ensure the efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability of the federal government and all its agencies. Many Americans also know Raskin from his tenure as the lead impeachment manager—tapped by then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi in January 2021— for President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial related to the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Long a supporter of improving U.S. health care access—and especially improved access to mental health care— Congressman Raskin’s political advocacy merged painfully with his family’s personal tragedy when his vibrant, engaged, and beloved adult son, Tommy, lost his life to suicide on Dec 31, 2020, just 6 days prior the January 6th insurrection.

In his January 2022 memoir, Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy, Raskin tells the story of the painful convergence of these two tragic events. The frank discussion of his son’s full experience in the days, weeks, and months prior to his death provides a rare opportunity for readers to see the complexities of suicidality in mental health conditions; Raskin’s willingness to talk openly about his son’s death will hopefully help de-stigmatize such discussions.

In addition to writing candidly about his son’s mental health illness in Unthinkable, Raskin has also been open in sharing his own health issues. He was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer in 2010, and has stated publicly that he felt his access at that time to rapid, excellent medical care saved his life and used his experience to make the case that too many Americans do not have similar access. Additionally, within the year after Unthinkable was published, Raskin was diagnosed with diffuse large B-cell (non-Hodgkin) lymphoma, a cancer in the infection-fighting cells of the body, generally having favorable prognosis with treatment.

Recently, Congressman Raskin sat down with ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper and Gillian Friedman, MD, to discuss health, mental health, and political life.

check this out

Chet Cooper: How did you decide to get into politics?

Rep. Jamie Raskin: Oh, man, that’s a long, involved subject. Basically, I was a law professor for a long time teaching constitutional law. I have an academic temperament. I love reading and writing and researching and being with students in an academic environment. But my wife and I had three kids, and I was just starting to feel a little bit fraudulent not being involved in actually doing things, but instead just analyzing and criticizing and being on the sidelines. That was how I decided to do it, the short answer. I picked up the newspaper and saw that my state senator had introduced legislation to expand the death penalty in our state and had been blockading marriage equality and a number of other things that I felt didn’t represent the values and priorities of our community, and I decided to run back in 2006. The incumbent had been in office for 32 years and was president pro tempore of the Maryland Senate.

My favorite story about the race is that when I first announced, our local paper quoted a pundit who said, “Raskin’s chances of victory are considered impossible.” Nine months later we got 67% of the vote, and The Washington Post had another article quoting a pundit who said, “Raskin’s victory was inevitable.” So, it went from impossible to inevitable in nine months because the pundits are never wrong. (all laugh). I like to tell the young people in my Democracy Summer project that nothing in politics is impossible and nothing is inevitable. It’s only possible through the democratic arts of education and organizing and mobilizing people for change. So that’s what we did.

Cooper: One more question before I have Gillian talk about some other things. I want to say your hair looks good. (smiles) Can we go into a little bit how things are going with the cancer?

Raskin: Thank you for asking. I finished my chemotherapy back in April, so it’s been six months. I did my CAT scan, my PET scan, I’m sure I’ll be doing my DOG scan pretty soon. (all laugh) All of them are showing me in remission. I’m knocking on wood and feeling very grateful to be out of it. The chemotherapy was a very tough process. I have no more nausea, no more neuropathy. My eyebrows and my eyelashes came back and my hair’s coming back, such as it is.

Cooper: (laughs) Let me bring in Gillian. As you may know, Gillian’s a psychiatrist.

Dr. Gillian Friedman: I wanted to first of all thank you for writing Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy. It’s such an important book in so many ways. You so poignantly link the trauma of losing your son to his mental illness with the trauma just six days later of being in Congress, with others in your family, when security is breeched, gunshots are heard, and you have no way of knowing whether a mass shooting is about to occur. But I think one of the most important points you make—that we so rarely hear—is the importance of actually talking about suicide. I wanted to know what you would like to say in this forum about that.

Raskin: In the book I talk about how, when you lose a child to suicide, you spend a lot of time in self-cross-examination and careful reevaluation of everything that happened. One of the regrets I have is that I didn’t use the word “suicide” specifically and I didn’t talk about it much more insistently and adamantly. In the other part of the book, I say about January 6th and the attack on the election that we also don’t use the word “fascism,” and I regret that, too. I vowed that these are two words that I would use. I think a lot of parents don’t use the word “suicide” because we’re afraid that by using it we will somehow conjure it into being and plant a suggestion. But in fact, it’s probably the reverse, that not talking about it endows it with much more majesty and power than you would otherwise have. That’s one of my regrets.

rep. raskin attends silver creek middle school graduation
Rep. Raskin attending Silver Creek Middle School graduation

Friedman: I think that’s an important and very helpful message. The other thing that I found striking in your book is the picture of your son as such a whole person, which we also often don’t get in stories of people who struggle with depression or other mental illness. It’s not monolithic; it’s not easy to determine when somebody will be okay and when someone won’t be okay because parts of them remain okay up through the end. I think it’s rendered in a very helpful way.

Raskin: I appreciate that. The last thing Tommy would want is to be defined by how he died. He had passionate comments on earth, about human rights and animal rights and animal welfare and about peace and democracy and justice. He was a great poet and playwright. He was a second-year student at Harvard Law School in Boston. He made an indelible impact on people while we had him. We don’t want to lose any part of that.

Friedman: Thank you for being willing to talk about a difficult subject right off the bat in this time. Making a transition, another way I’ve been familiar with you, besides the January 6th hearings, is your longstanding work to improve emergency services for people with mental illness, which culminated in the past few years with the national 988 legislation, a separate emergency line (as opposed to 911) for patients having a mental health crisis. I know you had wanted the initial 988 legislation to be coupled with more federal resources to support it. As you have seen the rollout of 988, how is it doing in various parts of the country, and what you would have liked for it, what do you see for the future of 988?

rep. raskin greets constituents at the takoma park fourth of july parade. he's wearing a bandana that was sent to him by little steven van zandt of bruce springsteen's e street band
Rep. Raskin greets constituents at the Takoma Park Fourth of July parade. He’s wearing a bandana that was sent to him by little Steven Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band

Raskin: I’m eager for us to get adequate resources into the state and regional and local infrastructures so that we can have effective and coordinated response to people’s calls and to empower the first responder teams. This is something that ultimately should not be a responsibility of law enforcement. We should be able to move in another direction. I’m encouraged by what’s happened so far. I’m hopeful that people continue to embrace it and it becomes a catalyzing force in people to think about reducing and ending suicide.

Friedman: Are there other large healthcare/mental health priorities you’re working on right now that you want to make sure that we know about?

Raskin: Generally, I want us to evaluate the problem in national discourse. In the authoritarian societies, the mental health of the population is basically irrelevant, or if anything it’s a threat to the rule of the tyrants. But in democratic society, the mental health, like the physical health of the population, is essential for having a self-governing country. We have so many opportunities and so many needs for people to be involved in everything from the school boards to the town hall meetings to the legislatures to unions to co-ops, you name it. This is what Alexis de Tocqueville thought was amazing about America, that people engage in self-government. It’s not like that in most countries. But that means we need people to be in a condition of mental and physical health sufficient to be able to participate.

We’re going to continue to legislate to try to make the promise of parity between mental health and physical health real in the medical insurance system and in hospitals and in treatment across the country. I mean, there’s just irrational hangover myth that because you can’t see mental health, it’s not as serious as physical health problems. That’s obviously wrong, and we have to be taking mental health every bit as seriously as we take people’s physical health.

Friedman: I’m thinking about one of the statistics from several pieces of maternal mental health legislation currently introduced this session in the House and Senate, that as of 2022, the leading cause of maternal death (i.e., death in pregnancy and the first year postpartum) is suicide and overdose from substance use disorders. So, you’re right, people don’t see the parity sometimes, but in terms of the health and functionality of our society, it’s absolutely there.

check this out

Raskin: Yes.

Friedman: I want to be respectful of your time and go back to Chet. Thank you so much.

Cooper: . Do you think there’s also a mental health issue with the stress going on within Congress?

Raskin: I have a hunch that this is so, yes. It’s an enormously stressful time for people all over the world right now. The world’s on fire, and there are multiple crises striking people’s psyches, from war and terrorism to climate change and cataclysmic environmental effects to the rise of polarization and political division and the return of racism, anti-Semitism and lots of other primitive impulses that we thought had been left behind in the last century. It’s an enormously stressful and anxiety-provoking period for everybody. We’ve been through some tough times. It’s hard to see Donald Trump as the picture of mental and emotional health, and yet he’s been such a central and polarizing figure in our times. I think there are definitely some disturbing patterns in our politics.

Cooper: It seems as though when people in your position go to work to do what you signed up to do, it’s just dysfunctional. And even if it is functional, it takes so long to get anything through the system that I would think managing that stress, that frustration, especially for people who truly want to make change, is a constant challenge. I guess on either side of the aisle people have commitments, they want to see change, but the change comes so slowly, if ever. How do you maintain a balance without major stress continually beating at your system?

Raskin: Politics is not a profession for people who can’t roll with the punches. There’s an ebb and flow of political success for all sides. We are still celebrating and implementing some major legislation that got done, the Infrastructure Act, which was a $1.2 trillion investment in the roads and the highways and bridges and ports and airports and broadband and so on. We made big gains in terms of reducing prescription drug costs within the Medicare program. My constituents were paying more than $1,000 a month for their insulin shots as diabetics, and they’re now paying no more than $35 a month under the Medicare program because of what we did. There also was a huge investment in climate change.

rep. raskin creates food assistance packages with rockville youth volunteer nonprofit small things matter
Rep. Raskin creates food assistance packages with Rockville youth volunteer nonprofit Small Things Matter

So, when the Democrats lost the House in the 118th Congress this time, we stopped making progress along those fronts. But we are able to work with the executive branch to implement those changes and then keep fighting to make progress another day on things like gun safety and gun violence, women’s reproductive freedom and so on. So, two steps forward, one step back. You have to take in a sense of the overall sweep of history. Things have moved in a positive direction over time, and there are lots of people who have struggled in the civil rights movements of our history who have been up against much harsher odds than we have, people fighting for voting rights in Mississippi in the early 1960s, women fighting for the right to vote, not having any formal political power, the labor movement, the LGBTQ community, the environmental movement, which started without any environmental laws at all, and so on. We’ve made tremendous progress in this country, and we’ll continue to make progress. But we’ve got to keep the whole sweep of history in mind.

Personally, I spend a lot of time with younger people, but my whole campaign has turned into this Democracy Summer project, which is an attempt to mobilize high school and college-age kids to learn about the history of political progress in America and then to learn the concrete skills of door-knocking, canvassing, digital organizing, voter registration, and so on. I drive a lot. My dad used to say, “Whenever it looks hopeless, you’re the hope.” I grew up with that intense sense of guilt (laughs) and I carry that with me.

check this out

Cooper: I’m glad you brought up the work you’re doing with youth. I always look at people’s view of that glass that’s half-full or half-empty and how devastating it can be to continually think it’s half-empty, where if you can continue to try to look at it as half-full, like you’re doing, you can move forward so much more easily. They’re both realities, but I think that with the reality you’re focusing on—where you look at the history and home in on what you can do—then you become the hope. I think it’s that’s great philosophy for everyone.

Raskin: Yeah. A half-full glass is a pretty good glass. It’s half-full, and you get to fill up the other half. If it were already all full, you wouldn’t have anything to do.

Cooper: (laughs) We know you have a great sense of humor. I think it was Gillian who said that we were going to have a great time, because of your reputation as the wittiest Congressperson, and my history of publishing National Lampoon magazine.

Raskin: Really? That’s great! That was your job, you were the publisher of that publication?

Cooper: It was in the early ’90s. Time-Warner was also distributing ABILITY Magazine, so Time-Warner was really happy for me to take over National Lampoon. Anyway, there’s a fun story during those years, but we’re not involved any more. Coming out of Harvard, as you know—

Raskin: Did you go to Harvard?

Cooper: Yes. I think it was a Saturday.

(all laugh)

harvard lampoon building
Harvard Lampoon building

Cooper: I didn’t go to Harvard in the way you’re suggesting. But I had been to Harvard Lampoon, and the frustrating part was, I didn’t get to talk to anyone there. I should have called you. (laughs)

Raskin: I actually went there [Harvard Lampoon office], I think my first of second week of being a freshman, when they had the open house. You had to write three things if you wanted to be part of it. I wrote three things, and they said I was way too political and they weren’t interested! (all laugh) It’s probably a good thing. I was always impressed with the people. It was cool that they ended up making movies and stuff.

Cooper: I was the publisher, but I had no control over the movies. It was a fun time. Do you think you’ll write anything about this Congress?

Raskin: I don’t know. People have asked me to, but I’m not somebody who writes a book just to write a book. I only write books if I’ve got something to say. For me, it’s a tremendous investment in energy and time and feeling. I wouldn’t do it unless I felt like I had something important to say. Anything that I would want to say about this Congress I already said in Unthinkable, probably. Basically, we’re all the same. There is certainly a lot of funny stuff that goes on, and I’m happy to comment on it.

Cooper: Give me one funny thing you might be able to think of right now. I know I’m putting you on the spot.

Raskin: Funny things happen every single day. I remember right before we just left for our recess, Marjorie Taylor Greene [conservative Republican Congresswoman from Georgia] displayed in our Oversight Committee pornographic photographs that she said were from Hunter Biden’s [son of President Biden] hard drive of his laptop. Of course, the Democrats have never been given [the hard drive], so we had no idea where they were from. In any event, there was a big hubbub in the hearing room. I didn’t have my glasses on, so I didn’t see the pictures, but I turned to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez [Democratic Congresswoman from New York], who was next to me, and said, “What’s that?” She said, “I think those are pictures of live sex acts.” Lauren Bobert [conservative Republican Congresswoman from Colorado] came up to me —and you know there’s no love lost between Lauren Bobert and Marjorie Taylor Greene— and Lauren says, “This is outrageous.” And I said, “Yeah, I know, Lauren, somebody should do something about all the extremism and fanaticism in your party.” And she said to me, “You need to say something to her.” I said to Marjorie Taylor Greene, “If those pictures had been a book, you would have banned the book. Instead, you just displayed them for the whole country on C-SPAN.” (all laugh). Anyway, that kind of stuff goes on all the time.

Cooper: I know you have to go.

Raskin: Thanks for doing what you do at ABILITY  Magazine. That’s awesome. I appreciate the chance to get to meet you. Let me know when you guys come back to Washington.

sharing is caring

we did our part - now do yours and share

like a good neighbor, share

Related Articles: