NYC Congressional Candidate Advocates for a Mental Health Moonshot

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

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Patel is also advocating for a fresh approach to tackle mental health, an area where he believes outdated political norms have stifled progress. Here he shares his own mental health habits in an effort to destigmatize the conversation around mental health and details his proposed mental health for all plan.

[Read: What to Look for in a Therapist.]

Personal and Political Mental Health Priorities

How do you personally work on your mental health?

I’ve gotten better about this. In the past, I did nothing to take care of myself. After that first campaign loss, I spent a month in the woods. My now fiancé and I went to Zion, Arches and Olympic National Park and we found a lot of peace in the deep woods. The healing power of nature is unbelievable, so I always try to escape to that when it’s possible, if I need to. At the least, I garden a little bit every day. I have a little backyard in my East Village apartment — just pruning, fertilizing, planting and putting my hands in some soil.

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

[READ: What Is High-Functioning Anxiety?]

Running for office often means you are subjecting yourself to a lot of personal attacks, and must take a toll on your mental health. Why run for office?

That’s part of the reason why I’m running. We need to hold leaders accountable in both parties who resort to a politics of character assassination. We’re all in this for the right reason. We’re all in this 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’re leaving us is unacceptable. To do 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 office: We need people with empathy.

Do you have any physical, workout routines that help with your mental well-being?

I stay fit. I run, work out and do yoga a couple times a week when I can. It’s a big part of our wellness and athletic program. We know the city and country need it. A couple of years ago when I did my campaign we held fitness classes. We thought young people don’t vote because they don’t go to stuffy church basements and have little 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’d invite them to the SoulCycle class and host a town hall for 30 minutes. We’ve done yoga and a meditation event like that. I’ve done yoga every cycle as a campaign event. These types of events bring 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 caloric restriction does help you really focus. I typically don’t eat for 18 hours a day, mostly overnight. I won’t eat until 2pm today. Maybe I will have a little MCT (medium-chain triglycerides) oil just to keep my brain focused. What I’ve learned over time is one, you get more fit, but two, you gain a lot of focus, concentration and energy towards the end of a fast.

[READ: Ready for a Mental Health Workout?]

As an elected official, how do you plan to tackle the mental health crisis we are facing today?

A couple of decades ago we weren’t talking about the stigma of mental health. I’m glad we’re talking about this head-on now. The U.S. has the highest suicide rate amongst high income countries. We have the resources to do something about it. My policy is trifold. One is systemic reform, requiring all insurers to abide by mental health policy including Medicaid, Medicare, VA and expanding tele-psychiatry, tele-psychology and wellness and repealing Medicare’s 190-day lifetime limit on patients under psychiatric care.

There are a lot of things we’ve done that separate mental care from physical care as if the physiology isn’t the same thing. This country ought to launch a mental health moonshot. And that’s what a new generation of leadership looks like: thinking about the long-term, systemic problems instead of band-aid solutions.

A key component is psychedelics. The only reason that these compounds are not being treated with the same research dollars from the NIH and the VA is because of a Nixonian obsession with counter-culture. He wanted to punish hippies, and we are still carrying that with us for no reason. What I’m saying is not to go to full legalization. Let’s remove the obstacles and barriers we put up for this potentially life-saving research and increase NIH research funding for psychedelics.

As a person 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 that are leading the way on this. We should make this city and this district the hub for cutting-edge advances in treatment. As a district that is so high-performing that depression and anxiety levels are higher than the rest of the country, we need to expand compassionate use of psychedelics. We should lead simply with science and compassion and not an arcane view of these things simply because one president and a failed war on drugs has stopped this life-saving, promising research.

Is there anything that you do in the moment when you’re feeling stressed out?

I believe that the bulk of everything that happens is happening in the four corners of your head, and that you can change it and fix that all the time. Sometimes, if I get super stressed out ahead of an interview or a debate, I will take myself out to a corner of the room. I keep this golden Ganesha in my pocket, and while I’m not necessarily praying every time, I can rub it and realize that there’s a much bigger picture out there.

We’re an infinitesimally small part of an incredible ongoing universe, and it’s not that big of a deal. I let things go a little bit, and it has done wonders for me. It has given me the ability to campaign harder, better and with more conviction than anything I’ve ever done before.

I certainly try to remember humility by taking these deep “om” breaths, because one way to talk to your brain is through your breath. I’m a very high energy person and one of the things I’ve realized is that it’s really important to meet people where they are.

Can you explain what Ganesh means to you?

The prayer is: “God with a golden tusk who reflects the rays of 1,000 suns, please make my work obstacle free forever.” When you’re in a place like this, you want the remover of obstacles to be in your pocket and on your side and on your team. I don’t know why Ganesh is considered the remover of obstacles but it hit me one night: If you think about an elephant walking through the forest, they use their trunks to remove obstacles and go forward. It’s a reminder to give you perspective when things seem out of control.

What’s next in your campaign and how will you continue to shift the perspective on mental health in politics?

I’m in a race that will determine, in many ways, the next 10 years for this district. We have the opportunity to start voting for people who don’t look at politics as a zero-sum, binary game. We have an opportunity to vote for people who look at politics as a way to lift people up. That’s the fundamental difference between me and the prior generation of office holders, of Democrats and my two opponents. To them, everything is “I win and you lose or you win and I lose.” What a miserable lens through which to look at 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 full-boar on the idea that we need to change the vibes. It’s not a red, white and blue poster. People need some good news, and we believe people will vote not because they’re angry but because we could give them hope. We are offering something boldly different.

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

More from U.S. News

Best Ways to Practice Self-Care

What to Know About Anxiety Medications

7 Signs of Depression in Men

NYC Congressional Candidate Advocates for a Mental Health Moonshot originally appeared on usnews.com

Correction 08/22/22: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the New York City congressional district in which Patel is running.

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