How Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin Overcame Personal Tragedy to Champion Mental Health

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Photo credit: Courtesy of the Raskin Family
Photo credit: Courtesy of the Raskin Family

Maryland Congressman Jamie Raskin was thrust onto the national stage earlier this year when he was chosen by Speaker Nancy Pelosi to lead the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump on the charge of inciting a mob to storm the Capitol on January 6. On that day Raskin, like his fellow lawmakers, had been forced to take cover in the building—and put on a gas mask—as throngs of far-right protesters spent hours defacing art, breaking glass, looting offices, and gravely injuring police officers. It also happened to be the day Raskin had brought his daughter Tabitha and son-in-law Hank with him to work, so that they could witness the counting of electoral votes and what should have been an iconic moment in American democracy: the peaceful transfer of power. Instead they hid under a desk and thought they were going to die.

In the midst of all of that, Raskin and his wife were grieving a terrible tragedy at home: the death of their son Thomas (Tommy to those who knew him), who took his own life on New Year’s Eve. The family had buried him only the day before the Capitol insurrection.

Photo credit: Handout - Getty Images
Photo credit: Handout - Getty Images

“Tommy Raskin had a perfect heart, a perfect soul, a riotously outrageous and relentless sense of humor, and a dazzling, radiant mind,” Raskin wrote in an emotional tribute. The 25-year-old had been a second-year student at Harvard Law School, his parents’ alma mater. (His father is a former constitutional law professor; his mother Sarah Bloom Raskin was President Obama’s deputy secretary of the Treasury.) In his twenties he began battling depression, a disorder that afflicts nearly 19 percent of Americans, with those in the 18–29 age group representing the highest percentage (21 percent) of adults who experience symptoms. The pandemic’s toll on mental health has been undeniably catastrophic. In June 2020, 40 percent of adults in the country reported dealing with mental health issues and substance abuse.

“Tommy’s struggle showed me that our obligation to treat mental health needs is just as urgent as our obligation to treat physical health needs,” Raskin says. “In theory, federal law governing health insurance now requires them to be treated equally, but this remains more of a paper commitment than a living reality.” Most of the nation’s counties, for example, don’t have a child psychiatrist, and treatments for depression aren’t easily accessible for many families in need. In March the Maryland General Assembly unanimously passed a law—renamed the Thomas Bloom Raskin Act—that will establish a crisis hotline that not only connects callers with counselors but also periodically checks in on them (the program launches in July).

“The state of our society is a crucial component in how we are all doing,” Raskin says. Covid-19 is hardly the only major stressor. “The racism, the misogyny, the irrational thinking and conspiracy theories, the public ridicule and hostility we have allowed to fester in America, especially on the internet, create a difficult emotional and social climate for everyone.” Next up for the congressman: passing a bill to get the National Institutes of Health to complete the first independent study on the damaging effects of social media on children’s emotional, physical, and cognitive development. “We’re reaching a crisis point on this specific issue,” he says. Then he’s writing a book about Tommy.

This story appears in the Summer 2021 issue of Town & Country.
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