OP-ED: Mental Health does not Know Party Lines, The State Legislature Can Prevent Suicides

By: State Rep. Jennifer O’Mara

Mental Health does not Know Party Lines
The State Legislature Can Prevent Suicides

This Sunday, I’m lighting a candle. It’s no one’s birthday nor is it part of a weekly routine, but a somber ritual dedicated to my dad’s life, tragically cut too short by his own hand. When he was 48, he died by gun suicide.

September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day, and the observance is typically commemorated by lighting a candle in memory of loved ones who died avoidable deaths. While my family’s experience with suicide was heart wrenching, it wasn’t unique.

My dad sadly became another statistic supporting the fact that first responders are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty, and that military veterans are 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide than Americans who never served. But he wasn’t just a statistic, his name was Joe O’Mara, he was a veteran Marine and Philadelphia firefighter.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, roughly 20 veterans die by suicide every day nationwide. The most recent data available specifically for Pennsylvania is from 2020, revealing that 240 veterans took their own lives that year.

Before taking office, as I coped with the loss of my dad, I struggled because I felt so alone. Some of our friends and family turned their backs on us. I hid the truth from so many because suicide carries a dark stigma with it in our society. As I grew older, I learned that not only is there data to prove I’m not alone, but I’ve also met so many people whose lives have also been touched by suicide. Although I found comfort in being understood, I kept asking myself, why was this so acceptable? That’s when I decided to run for office.

I wanted to do everything within my power to ensure no family had to suffer the same tragedy that mine did. Some bills I introduced to prevent suicides are ones that would implement Extreme Risk Protection Orders, which would provide a mechanism for Pennsylvanians to temporarily disarm loved ones in crisis, and ensuring first responders can recover from a post-traumatic stress injury. This PTSI bill has strong bipartisan support, and would allow first responders to file for worker’s compensation if the diagnosis was brought on due to the scope of their employment.

In addition to this, I serve on the Governor’s Challenge Team to Prevent Suicide Among Service Members, Veterans and Their Families. As a legislative member, I explore policy initiatives that could prevent veteran/military member suicides and increase accessibility to support measures. The challenge team strives to achieve a zero-suicide outcome in Pennsylvania.

I devote myself to this cause because the pain that comes with losing a loved one to suicide is a wound that never wholly heals. However, I’m just one person. The Extreme Risk Protection Order bill I introduced passed the House, but needs to be passed by the Senate. Please, take a moment to contact your senator and Senate Republican leaders and ask them to join us to do the right thing. My measure that increased donations to the Veterans Trust Fund, which among other things, helps connect veterans to mental health services, took two years to make it to the governor’s desk and be signed into law.

Last year, the crisis lifeline 9-8-8 launched in Pennsylvania. This was a great accomplishment in making help more accessible, but federal law falls short in ensuring its sustainability. The federal law that made this resource possible did not include funding. This means that many Pennsylvania counties aren’t equipped to make this service a success and its long-term prosperity remains questionable without action in the House and Senate. The House has acted. We still wait for the Senate to move.

To truly save lives, we need to treat the mental health crisis with the severity it deserves. Nearly 34 percent of Pennsylvanians have a mental illness or substance use disorder.

If we adequately fund mental and behavioral health services, especially ensuring veterans and first responders can easily access this care, we can reduce the mental health stigma and save lives.

This Sunday evening, I encourage everyone to light a candle with me. Whether or not you’ve been impacted by suicide, if we stand united together, we can destigmatize this real problem in our commonwealth. To save lives, we need to put our differences aside and work together in a meaningful way by adopting a proactive, bipartisan approach to this crisis. Burning our individual candles will never be enough, but it’s a symbolic start to meaningful, productive discussions.


Information provided to TVL by:
Amanda Mehall
House Democratic Communications Office