Photo courtesy of Shoreline Area News
By: Marie Bao, Alec Cheff, Anastasiya Fritch, Siu Yau Lam, Juan Nunez, and Andrew Weiss; UW Bothell School of Business
We entered the classroom with our clothing wet with rain. Our objective was to appear competent and assured. We nervously stared at one another while futilely readjusting our chairs in an attempt to soothe our anxiety.
This would be our first time conversing with an elected government official, and we second-guessed our interviewing techniques. Representative Lauren Davis appeared on our screens through Zoom while sporting a bright pink shirt and a dazzling smile. Behind her was a brilliant blue background and a logo emblazoned with “House of Representatives.” She appeared composed and comfortable. After adjusting our camera position, we were ready to begin the interview to discuss her recent successes: House Bill 1713, and House Bill 1834.
Both of these bills are close to Representative Davis’s heart. She, along with some of her closest childhood friends, has struggled with mental health. She was able to “channel that grief into purpose” and enact bills that assists those struggling with mental health.
Long before she was elected, Representative Davis had been deeply involved with mental health and substance use organizations and continues her involvement. She worked for the Washington Recovery Alliance and served as its executive director. For five years, she served on the public policy committee for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Washington. Now, as a state legislator, she continues to help Washingtonians in their mental health journeys.
According to your background, you have been offering your service to help the community a lot. In what other ways are you assisting Washingtonians as a representative?
LD: “I work on kind of three primary areas as a state representative. My background was in behavioral health, mental health, addiction services, and suicide prevention so I’ve been doing that work as a legislator as well. Another area that I’ve spent a lot of my time working on as a legislator that certainly addresses a lot of areas of need in our community is addressing criminal legal system reform. So, what actually drew me to the criminal legal reform work is the fact that, unfortunately in this country, the overwhelming thing that almost everybody has in common that we incarcerate in the United States in our jails and prisons is that they have a diagnosis of a mental health or substance use disorder, almost without exception. The third area of work which is also related in so many ways to the other two, where I spend a lot of my time supporting the community, has to do with domestic violence. And, you know, not surprisingly, domestic violence also has a huge overlap with mental health challenges and substance use challenges; both actually for the victims and the perpetrators. As you all know, often the root of mental health and substance use challenges is trauma, and so it’s not surprising, then, that the victims also experience high rates of those disorders. But, perpetrators too, right? You’ve heard the expression, “hurt-people hurt people”. So, those are kind of my three areas of work: behavioral health, criminal legal reform, and domestic violence. And then, I do a lot of that work outside the Legislature as well working with various community organizations.”
How has mental health impacted your career?
LD: “My pursuit of mental health issues actually led to my political career. I mentioned that I lost a friend to suicide when I was in high school. He died just before Christmas, in 2002. I was sixteen at the time, and I try to channel that pain into purpose. And I got involved with the youth suicide prevention program, which is a nonprofit that used to exist and did all this work. And then I went off to college and got involved in some other causes. And then, when I moved back after college, I got in touch with the woman who had been the executive director of this suicide prevention nonprofit and she was actually starting a different suicide prevention nonprofit called Forefront at the UW School of Social Work at UW Seattle.”
Representative Davis told us about her inspiration for HB 1834. She recounts, “I was also that kid who was experiencing a suicidal crisis in school and bawling my eyes out in front of my calculus teacher, and all he could do was talk to me about my grade.” Schools and teachers demonstrated a lack of awareness regarding students’ mental health. To make matters worse, as far as schools were concerned, depression was not an acceptable reason to miss class. This led to feelings of isolation and invalidation. She told us, “I thought I was…the only one…crying myself to sleep at night…and statistically, there’s no way that that was true.” As of March 2022, House Bill 1834 permits excused absences for mental health reasons in public schools. Mental health challenges are as legitimate as other medical challenges like the flu, pneumonia, or breaking a bone. This bill allows people with mental health struggles to “feel seen.”
When was the moment you realized the H.B. 1834 was necessary to be passed?
LD: “I realized that this bill needed to be passed in 2003- 2004. I lost a child a childhood friend to suicide when I was in high school. I was a sophomore, and he was a senior and I experienced a very significant depression subsequent to that. And there were a myriad of other issues, obviously like neurochemical imbalances and parents’ divorce and various other traumatic events. But anyway, I spiraled into my own really severe depression, suicidal ideation, and was on a 504 plan for that depression. And fortunately, my parents, I guess, rolled with it, or embellished, or outright lied, or whatever you want to call it, and you know, would write little things: ‘Oh, Lauren’s not feeling well today,’ and in, in essence, offered this sort of mental health excused absence. But it certainly wasn’t seen or validated in the way that it will be now, which is exciting.”
Do you think this bill would change this stigma around mental health?
LD: “Yeah, I want to believe that it will help tremendously. You know, the biggest thing that I think is going to help change the stigma around mental health is your generation and the generation behind you, because of the applicability with which your age and those younger than you, and the familiarity and the willingness to be vulnerable and to discuss issues like mental health. The fact that this is even the topic that you chose, I think that speaks volumes. As far as this bill goes, I do think it makes a tremendous difference. The idea is normalizing that it’s okay to not be okay. And it’s okay to ask for help. And it’s okay to talk about mental health.”
Ricky Garcia, Davis’s best friend, nearly lost his life in his early twenties due to alcoholism and opioid use disorder. Seth Dawson, Ricky Garcia, Lauren Davis, and NAMI worked together to advocate for Ricky’s Law. Since April 2018, Ricky’s Law (HB 1713) has given people hope. HB1713 requires Designated Crisis Responders to place people in specific medical facilities. They may only do so if the person is at imminent risk or danger to themselves or others or are unable to care for their own basic needs. This law protects and allows people to make sober decisions about their future.
How does Ricky’s Law (HB 1713) affect individuals struggling with addiction?
LD: “It is named after Ricky, who is my best friend that I met in high school. The law allows for civil commitment if someone has life-threatening addiction. The risk of harm to themselves is due to drugs and alcohol, and if they are at risk of dying due to overdose, suicide, related issues. It’s a last-ditch intervention for somebody who, if nobody intervenes, will die of their addiction. It has already saved thousands of lives in the state. Under current Washington state law there’s just one type of person that decides this, a Designated Crisis Responder, a mental health professional who has really specific training in the law.
You would only ever use Ricky’s Law if that’s really your only option to save this person’s life.”
Why do you think mental health challenges among students are as prevalent as they are now? And what can teachers and the school system do to assist students struggling with] mental health illness?
LD: “I used to do work in high schools around suicide prevention and mental health challenges. I have seen such high rates of not just mental health and substance use challenges, but eating disorders, self-harming behaviors, kids with really serious psychiatric distress and psychiatric hospitalizations. And that’s gotten worse… So that is sort of a million-dollar question. I don’t think there’s actually an easy answer. Technology is a piece of the story. I don’t think the problem is the phone itself. I think the problem would be the isolation that it can create. We’re created for community. There are a ton of stressors on young people. Like existential threats, like a burning planet and now the news is brought to everybody’s cell phone constantly, and so I think youth are sort of carrying the burdens of their parents and their grandparents around lots of things. I think there is a way that teachers could infuse things like a self-care practice. It’s a good muscle to build. I would love to see this concept of mental wellness not siloed in a health class that you take like once as a freshman in high school, but rather more transformative.”
How do you contribute to NAMI and their mission and vice versa?
LD: “I was really involved with NAMI before I was elected. I was the executive director of an organization called the Washington Recovery Alliance, which I still work for. Their focus is more on substance use recovery as opposed to mental health, but they do very similar work. NAMI Washington has a public policy committee that I served on for about five years… I work with them a lot. I work with their lobbyists, I work with their public policy director, and I work with their executive director. I can’t think of a time where I’ve ever disagreed with what NAMI is interested in, because of our philosophical and value alignment. I continue to work with NAMI a lot as a state legislator, primarily with NAMI Washington.”
People struggling with substance use disorders or mental health challenges need to have a support system. Being and feeling alone during tough times makes struggles worse. Check-in with loved ones and friends; offer them resources and help needed. There are numerous programs, hotlines, and organizations, like NAMI Seattle. For youth, NAMI’s “Ending the Silence” program teaches warning signs of mental health conditions. Ending the Silence as well as In Our Own Voice presentations can be requested by community groups and organizations. Request a presentation from NAMI Seattle. Additionally, NAMI Washington has a Lobby Day event on February 20th, where you can use your voice to educate legislators about mental illness.
This interview has been condensed and edited for content and clarity. Special thanks to Lauren Davis, Ashley Fontaine, and Jennifer Sanchez-Tejada for their time. This is a collaborative piece written by a group of University of Washington Bothell School of Business students in Professor Laura Umetsu’s Business Writing course.