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Mayor Pete Buttigieg gave the Sun a one-on-one interview in Ossipee on Sunday. (TERRY LEAVITT PHOTO)

OSSIPEE — Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg says the United States can and must successfully fight the addiction and mental health crisis that is costing hundreds of thousands of lives due to what he calls “deaths from despair.”

Buttigieg unveiled his mental health care plan last weekend on a three-day campaign swing through New Hampshire, including a stop for a house party in West Ossipee on Sunday.

The event was well attended by an enthusiastic crowd, with an official crowd count of 439, based on people who signed in when they arrived.

Buttigieg sat down for a one-on-one interview with the Sun to talk about his plan and the campaign.

“We’ve had a really great swing through New Hampshire. We’ve been in lots of different communities and we’ve taken the opportunity to really explain what I'm seeking to do on mental health and addictions as president,” he said.

Buttigieg, 37, graduated from Harvard University and Pembroke College, Oxford, England, served as an intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve in Afghanistan, worked as a policy consultant and, since 2012, has been the mayor of South Bend, Ind.

In his speech in Ossipee, he said access to health care is critical to freedom, saying freedom includes the freedom to thrive and “you cannot thrive if you do not have access to health care.”

His mental health care plan is part of a wider health care plan that includes opening Medicare to all who want it, improving access to health care in rural areas and for veterans, and protecting access to women’s health services.

Through his website, Buttigieg identified six key areas of mental health care needs in New Hampshire: the opioid crisis, suicide among young people, a lack of access to mental health services for veterans and the general public, and a lack of help for people who have experienced severe childhood trauma.

“The bottom line is that we can save a million lives from deaths from despair — that's drugs, alcohol, suicide — over the next 10 years. That's what it would amount to, based on current trends, if we cut the number of deaths from despair and half — a million lives,” he said.

Buttigieg presented detailed plans on his website to address each of those areas of need.

For example, to address the opioid crisis, Buttigieg proposes, among other things, making naloxone (marketed under the brand name Narcan) broadly available in public spaces as well as to private individuals; deregulating buprenorphine, which is used to treat opioid addictions, increasing the number of clinicians able to prescribe it and requiring insurers to cover treatment; standardizing addiction treatment and ending requirements that make patients to wait days or weeks to receive access.

State and federal statistics show that New Hampshire has been disproportionately affected by the opioid epidemic that has swept the country.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, New Hampshire is among the top five states with the highest rates of opioid-involved deaths, with 488 in 2017 — more than twice the national rate of 14.6 deaths per 100,000 people.

But Buttigieg noted that opioid addiction is far from being just a New Hampshire problem.

“This is certainly a place where the challenge is tremendous, but we're seeing it in lots of places,” he said. “In my own community, people that I know have been lost to this epidemic. We had one family where on the same day, a mother lost her 18-year-old son and his 19-year-old brother. The thing that has been really striking as I've gone to different communities and had events like this is sometimes I’ve asked for a show of hands, ‘Who knows somebody or loves somebody that’s been affected by mental health or addiction?’ And it’s just about every hand.”

Buttigieg advocates for treating addiction as a medical issue rather than as a crime and said that it is also part of a much wider mental health crisis.

“It’s clear that part of what we’ve got to do is just break the silence or the stigma that would have you think that this is a rare issue that only affects a few people,” he said. “We’ve also got to learn to talk about the range of mental health issues, everything from fairly routine experience with depression that so many people have all the way to serious clinically diagnosed mental illnesses that require inpatient treatment.”

In addition, he said, mental health issues need to be seen in the same light as physical health and integrated in terms of care.

“We need to put together the resources to build off the workforce of people qualified to deal with mental health issues. We need to use tools that help bring mental health resources to areas where it's harder to get access, especially rural areas where telemedicine and telepsychiatry can make a huge difference,” he said.

As popular and successful mayor in South Bend, he has been credited with work that spurred economic development in the city.

When asked how he hopes to translate his success in South Bend to the national stage, he said, “There’s no job quite like the presidency, but I’ve also said there is no job quite like being the mayor of the city of any size, especially in the strong mayor system we have in Indiana.”

Being a mayor he said means working closely with large numbers of people and inspiring the community.

“It means that you are close to the earth. You are with the people you serve, you are accountable for results. You don't get the luxury of alternative facts or blaming the media if something goes wrong,” he said. “You are dealing with everything from economic development to getting the 3 a.m. phone call to deal with an emergency. And you are responsible, not only for policy and administration but for calling a population to its highest values in times of stress and strain. It's hard to think of a job in government that is more related to the functions of the presidency.”

At the heart of the addiction and mental health crises in New Hampshire and the nation, Buttigieg identifies a profound lack of a sense of belonging that crosses cultural lines and generations.

“We need to face the crisis of belonging in this country, that I think is the deeper reason behind a lot of the self-medicating that leads to addiction,” he said.

When asked how do you face a crisis of belonging, Buttigieg responded, “It sounds like a deep, almost spiritual issue and it is, but there are steps we can take. A lot of the answers lie in our communities. That's why we need to support and encourage — and I would say fund — plans that help break down the social isolation of seniors and the increasing sense of aloneness that many young people report.”

He said his national service proposal would help address that isolation, particularly a community health corps that involves helping people dealing with addiction, and an inter-generational corps that would build bonds between people of different generations.

“And I think the experience of service itself can also help build up social cohesion,” he said. We need coordinated national effort on this question of belonging. It's not just a policy issue but it is an issue with a lot of policy consequences, especially if we don't get it right.”

To learn about Buttigieg’s campaign, go to peteforamerica.com.

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