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It had only been hours since Rep. Susan Wild (D-Penn.) received a sweet text from her partner, Kerry Acker, earlier this year. And it had been less than a day since they hung up the phone after menu-planning late into the night for the weekend’s Memorial Day barbecue with friends. So Wild was beyond devastated when she learned on Saturday morning that Acker had died by suicide.
“It was just a complete and utter shock to me,” Wild told Know Your Value. She and Acker met in law school in the early 1980s, then rekindled their relationship in 2002. Wild, a mother of two from a previous marriage, was drawn to Acker’s humor and intellect. He loved running, traveling and cheering Wild’s successes as she won a Republican-held congressional seat in the 2018 midterm elections and was sworn into office early this year. He had been planning to join her in Washington.
“Nothing ever prepares you for that call, let me tell you,” Wild said. “Even when you think, as I did, that there’s some mental issues, depression, that kind of thing, you just never are ready for that call. You never expect it to happen.”
Now, Wild is channeling her grief by working on suicide prevention efforts and increasing access to mental health care, especially during September, which is National Suicide Prevention Month. The more she speaks publicly about Acker, the more she sees how prevalent the issue is.
“I now hear from people probably several times a day — not a week, but a day — reaching out to me telling me their personal story,” Wild said. “It’s just kind of staggering to me that there’s so much of this, and it’s really, in my view, been very much neglected.”
She’s working on legislation to make mental health care more affordable and easier to obtain, with specific efforts geared toward groups that experience higher rates of suicide, like veterans and college students. She’s also focusing on family members dealing with the aftermath of a loved one’s suicide.
“I will say firsthand that as much as people feel bad for you and grieve for you, they don’t really understand how badly you need your own mental health care after something like this happens,” Wild said. A bill she’s working on would treat suicide in the family as a “qualifying life event,” a term used by insurance companies that would give people an immediate opportunity to change their health care coverage. (Typically, that can only be done once a year during open enrollment, or immediately after a significant life change like a marriage or birth.)
Wild said it’s no surprise she’s thrown herself into her work, a tactic she used throughout her life to cope with adversity. And while she acknowledged how difficult it is to speak about Acker’s death, she’s moved by the number of people who share their own personal stories with her as a result.
“I do find it to be therapeutic. When I hear that I can help somebody, when people contact me and they tell me that they’ve either been suicidal or that they have a spouse or family member who is, you know It gives me a sense of purpose,” Wild said. “But... I don’t know that that actually helps me deal with my own issues.”
Wild didn’t take the decision to speak about her devastating loss lightly. As she kept busy in her Washington, D.C. and Allentown, Pennsylvania offices last spring, she didn’t speak publicly about Acker’s death until the one-month anniversary neared. From a podium on the floor of the House of Representatives, she spoke of her beloved partner.
“Kerry was 63 years old. He shouldn’t have had a care in the world. He was financially secure and had a warm, loving family and dozens of friends,” she said in the storied House chamber. “He loved them all. And yet incomprehensibly, he seemingly did not grasp the toll his absence would have on those who loved him.”
Calling suicide a “national emergency,” she repeated the staggering statistics: More than 47,000 suicides in America in 2017 alone, and more than 1.4 million attempted suicides that year, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“People who are suicidal, because of their own anguish, cannot appreciate how impactful it’s going to be to people around them,” Wild told Know Your Value. “I assure you, and this is going to sound crazy, that Kerry thought by the following week, we would have all adapted and moved on… I really believe that he thought that we would all be better off without him.”
In her tearful floor speech, which was shared on Twitter and Youtube, Wild didn’t mince words. “There are people who love you and will suffer more than you know if they lose you,” she said plainly to anyone struggling, as Acker had. She urged them to reach out, either to loved ones or by calling 911 or The National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
While members of Congress often give floor speeches in empty rooms, Wild was surrounded by a group of her fellow newly-elected representatives as well as more senior members, all organized by the freshman class co-president, Haley Stevens (D-Mich.). It was a testament to the camaraderie Wild has found among the women in congress and the close friendships that have sustained her.
“This wasn’t what I set out to do when I came to Congress. I wanted to work on issues that affect the common person,” Wild told Know Your Value. “I just didn’t realize this was going to be a part of it.”