Want a bigger head scratcher than your daily Sudoku game? Presidential candidates’ ambivalence toward mental health.

Forget defunding Planned Parenthood or denouncing the Syrian refugee crisis, presidential candidates need to redouble their efforts to address our country’s mental health shortcomings.

Why? Mental health issues victimize returning soldiers, troubled teenagers, and overworked professionals, scarring families seeking to understand a loved one’s behavior.

Mental health difficulties plague 44 million Americans. The repercussions: persistent unemployment, a strained criminal justice system, and an overburdened health care system. Economic impact? Serious mental illness costs America $193.2 billion in lost earnings per year. Recidivism? 70 percent of juvenile offenders have at least one mental health condition. Health care? Mood disorders are the third most common cause of hospitalization for youth and adults aged 18-44.

Despite the alarming statistics, politicians are reluctant to discuss mental health care. When politicians and the media discuss mental health shortcomings, the language belittles consumers as flawed, mentally unstable, or dangerous. Perpetuating the unfounded link between mental health and violence, media pundits demonize the mentally ill to explain Sandy Hook, Aurora, and other national tragedies. Even among progressive politicians, there is a subtle undertone conflating violence and the mentally ill. Bernie Sanders’s seemingly innocuous comment connecting mental health and gun control during an October debate is systemic.

Contrary to popular opinion, however, only three to five percent of violent acts are attributable to individuals living with a serious mental illness. In fact, those diagnosed with a severe mental illness are 10 times more likely to be the victims of a violent crime. Instead of stigmatizing a marginalized population, media and political leaders need to revisit their misplaced assumptions.

Here are recommendations to challenge the scapegoating — unintentional or otherwise — of the mentally ill:

  • Language is powerful. Mental illness is a pejorative term. A more holistic, neutral term: behavioral health.
  • Mental illness is couched in criminality. Unless the defendant uses an insanity defense, his mental health history is specious.
  • A balanced perspective about mental illness. Mental health begets creativity, compassion, and resiliency. Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy transcended mental health obstacles.

Speaking of political leadership, 2016 presidential candidates need to have the political courage to tackle an admittedly thorny issue. Across the country, states have slashed funding for mental health services. Theoretically, Medicaid expansion broadened mental health coverage. In reality, institutional challenges persist.

Last year, 41 percent of adults received mental health services. Among adults with a serious mental illness, nearly 63 percent received mental health services. The reasons are multifold: a shortage of psychologists, cultural perceptions toward mental health treatment, and perceived indifference among health care providers.

Here are skeletal policy recommendations to eliminate institutional barriers:

  • A Teach for America program to incentivize the placement of clinical psychologists in low-income school districts, public health facilities, and correctional units.
  • A behavioral health specialist placed in disadvantaged, undermanned public schools.
  • A life skills course in middle school. The course introduces mental illness, provides an overview of resources for at-risk students, and debunks cultural and gender misperceptions (“mental health is a character flaw” or “only weak men seek help”).

With the Iowa caucuses in 61 days, I challenge presidential candidates to unveil a comprehensive mental health care platform. There are 44 million reasons to speak up for mental health care reform. #SilenceIsDeadly

Soup photo available from Shutterstock