From left, Frank Florence, Jaime Angelini, Atlantic City fire Chief Scott Evans, congressional candidate Amy Kennedy, Atlantic County Sheriff Eric Scheffler and Sandra McGarvey speak at a mental health and substance abuse panel Thursday at Enlightened Cafe in Ventnor.

In South Jersey, mental health and substance abuse are core concerns for voters, making it a key issue for Democratic candidates vying to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew in the state’s 2nd Congressional District.

Amy Kennedy, one of those candidates, hosted a panel discussion Thursday morning at Enlightened Cafe in Ventnor to coincide with the rollout of her plan on the issues.

“We know how important the environment is, we know how important infrastructure is, we know how important our education system is, and housing and the economy,” said Kennedy, of Brigantine. “But I think we all know that our wellness is at the core of all those other issues, and that if we are not addressing mental health and wellness, if we are not addressing the deaths of despair that we are seeing every day, the rest of this (isn’t) gonna come together.”

Brigid Callahan Harrison, who is also running for the Democratic nomination, drew a distinction between Kennedy’s approach and her own.

“My focus is more on looking at public policy regarding mental health and substance abuse from a federal level,” she said, adding her policy priorities are in alliance with the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Other Democratic candidates in the 2nd Congressional District race are Ashley Bennett, John Francis, Jack Surrency, Robert Turkavage and Will Cunningham.

Kennedy’s campaign event, in front of a few dozen attendees, included Atlantic County Sheriff Eric Scheffler, Atlantic City fire Chief Scott Evans and Jaime Angelini of the Mental Health Association in Atlantic County. The participants spoke about ending particular stigmas around mental health in their fields, recognizing early signs of trouble or trauma and the need to expand the availability of counseling and other treatment.

Kennedy, a former teacher and wife of former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, formally released her proposal Thursday, which included a call for counselors and psychologists in every school, equipping first responders with the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, promoting universal screening at all health care facilities, making opioid manufacturers pay for the harm caused by addiction, reforming the criminal justice system to steer people dealing with those issues toward treatment instead of prison and funding mobile outreach teams.

Scheffler provided proof of the power of mobile outreach. His office’s Hope One Mobile Outreach Team has helped get 618 people into treatment for substance abuse since its unveiling in 2018, he said. He also spoke to the connection between mental health, substance abuse and law enforcement.

“We know that in the criminal justice system itself that ... 50% of the people incarcerated today have some type of either addiction or mental health issue, and that’s certified numbers,” Scheffler said. “So if they’re certified numbers, you probably could say that those numbers are much, much higher than that.”

Harrison, of Longport, a professor of political science at Montclair State University, in an interview Thursday described her main goals for tackling the worsening issues of mental illness and substance abuse.

Her policy push would be a three-part proposal, she said. She would look to increase funds for research, both for the cause of mental illness and its treatment; protect access to services and treatment, particularly in the Department of Veterans Affairs, to treat post-traumatic stress disorder for patients in rural areas; and ensure “parity of access” between physical and mental illness both in private insurance and government-run insurance.

Kennedy framed mental illness and substance abuse as issues that can be tackled effectively, as they impact everyone in some regard.

“On this issue, it is bipartisan. We know how many people are being affected throughout the country, and we know it’s a place we can make progress,” Kennedy said. “We are just at the beginning of this effort.”

Contact: 609-272-7260

Twitter @ACPressColtShaw

Staff Writer

I cover breaking news on the digital desk. I graduated from Temple University in Dec. 2017 and joined the Press in the fall of 2018. Previously, I freelanced, covering Pennsylvania state politics and criminal justice reform.

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