New York Congressional Candidate Advocates for Mental Health Moonshot

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Suraj Patel, a 38-year-old attorney and lecturer in business ethics at New York University, is leading a forward-thinking campaign for Manhattan’s 12th congressional district. He approaches politics with a young, positive and down-to-earth attitude. Patel dances with New Yorkers in the streets wearing a suit and Birkenstock sandals, meets her supporters for craft beer and campaigns during yoga classes and at SoulCycle.

Courtesy of Suraj Patel

Patel is also advocating for a new approach to tackling mental health, an area where he says outdated policy norms have stifled progress. Here, he shares his own mental health habits in an effort to de-stigmatize the conversation about mental health and details his plan for Mental Health for All.

Personal priorities and mental health policies

How do you personally work on your mental health?

I got better at it. In the past, I did nothing to take care of myself. After this first campaign defeat, I spent a month in the woods. My fiancé and I have been to Zion, Arches and Olympic National Park and found lots of peace in the deep woods. The healing power of nature is amazing, so I always try to escape from it when possible, if I need to. At least I garden a little every day. I have a small garden in my East Village apartment – just pruning, fertilizing, planting and getting my hands in some dirt.

Now I have become very deliberate about what I do. I am a big believer in endorphin release. If I have a really important debate or interview, my team blocks out at least an hour in advance to hit the gym and lift weights or do something to get an endorphin release, because I know there’s no substitute that. That’s why every morning I wake up and go run a few miles on the East River and collect my thoughts. I come home and do at least 15 minutes of gardening, take a shower, meditate for about five minutes, and then I’m good to go. This is how I attack the day. Full stop, no matter what, this is how I start my day.

Running for office often means exposing yourself to a lot of personal attacks and having to take a toll on your sanity. Why stand for election?

That’s part of the reason I run. We must hold accountable the leaders of both parties who resort to a policy of defamation. We are all here for the right reason. We are all here to make our country and our city better. I once heard a quote that said “the American people deserve the government they have, because they vote for it.” The government we have is a failure and our representatives have failed in every major battle since 1990. The future they leave us is unacceptable. Doing the same thing over and over again is the definition of insanity and that’s why I’m running – because someone has to. And we need better people in the office: we need empathetic people.

Do you have physical training routines that contribute to your mental well-being?

I stay in shape. I run, train and do yoga a few times a week when I can. It’s a big part of our wellness and athletics program. We know the city and the country need it. A few years ago when I was campaigning, we had fitness classes. We thought young people don’t vote because they don’t go to stuffy church basements and have small town halls. It’s not appealing to them.

We should find them where they are. We started doing fitness classes like SoulCycle with voters. We would invite them to the SoulCycle course and hold a town hall meeting for 30 minutes. We did yoga and a meditation event like that. I did yoga every cycle as a campaign event. These types of events attract a different set of people who typically wouldn’t get involved in a professional primary campaign.

I also fast now, which is interesting. I think a little calorie restriction really helps you focus. I usually don’t eat for 18 hours a day, mostly at night. I won’t eat until 2 p.m. today. Maybe I’ll have some MCT (medium chain triglyceride) oil just to keep my brain focused. What I’ve learned over time is one, you get fitter, but two, you gain a lot of focus, focus and energy towards the end of a fast.

As an elected official, how do you plan to deal with the mental health crisis we face today?

A few decades ago, we weren’t talking about the stigma of mental health. I’m glad we’re talking about this head-on now. The United States has the highest suicide rate among high-income countries. We have the resources to do something about it. My policy is threefold. One is systemic reform, requiring all insurers to adhere to mental health policy, including Medicaid, Medicare, VA and expanding telepsychiatry, telepsychology and wellness and repealing the lifetime limit of 190 Medicare days for psychiatric patients.

There’s a lot of stuff we’ve done that separates mental care from physical care as if physiology isn’t the same thing. This country should launch a mental health moonshot. And that’s what a new generation of leaders looks like: thinking about long-term systemic problems rather than band-aid solutions.

A key element is psychedelics. The only reason these compounds aren’t treated with the same NIH and VA research dollars is because of a Nixonian obsession with the counterculture. He wanted to punish the hippies, and we always carry that with us for no reason. What I’m saying is don’t go all the way to full legalization. Let’s remove the obstacles and barriers we put in place for this potentially life-saving research and increase funding for NIH research on psychedelics.

As someone who is going to represent this district, I want New York’s 12th District to be the center with the best hospital systems in the world leading the way in this regard. We must make this city and this neighborhood the hub of cutting-edge therapeutic advances. As a district so successful that depression and anxiety levels are higher than the rest of the country, we need to expand the compassionate use of psychedelics. We should simply lead with science and compassion and not some obscure view of these things just because a president and a failed war on drugs stopped this promising and life-saving research.

Is there anything you do when you feel stressed?

I believe that most of everything is happening in the four corners of your head, and you can change and fix it all the time. Sometimes, if I’m super stressed before an interview or a debate, I’ll sit in the corner of the room. I keep this golden Ganesha in my pocket, and while I don’t necessarily pray every time, I can rub it and realize there’s a much bigger picture out there.

We are an infinitesimally small part of an incredible ongoing universe, and that’s not so bad. I let things go a bit, and it worked wonders for me. It gave me the ability to campaign harder, better and with more conviction than anything I’ve ever done before.

I’m definitely trying to remember the humility of taking those deep “om” breaths, because one way of talking to your brain is to breathe. I’m a very energetic person and one of the things I’ve realized is that it’s very important to meet people where they are.

Can you explain what Ganesh means to you?

The prayer is: “God with a golden tusk that reflects the rays of 1,000 suns, please make my work unhindered forever.” When you’re in a place like this, you want the Obstacle Eliminator in your pocket, by your side, and on your team. I don’t know why Ganesh is considered the remover of obstacles, but it struck me one evening: if you think of an elephant walking in the forest, he uses his trunk to remove obstacles and move forward. It’s a reminder to give you perspective when things feel out of control.

What is the next step in your campaign and how will you continue to change the perspective on mental health in politics?

I am in a race that will, in many ways, determine the next 10 years for this district. We have the opportunity to start voting for people who don’t view politics as a zero-sum binary game. We have the opportunity to vote for people who see politics as a way to uplift people. This is the fundamental difference between me and the previous generation of office holders, Democrats and my two opponents. For them, everything is “I win and you lose or you win and I lose”. What a miserable lens through which to view life.

My campaign poster says “change the vibes”. Because right now the vibes are so negative, they’re so bad, and we decided to go all out on the idea that we needed to change the vibes. This is not a red, white and blue poster. People need good news, and we believe people will vote not because they are angry, but because we could give them hope. We offer something boldly different.

If you or someone you know is going through a mental health crisis, call or text 988 to reach the National Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

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