Congresswoman Napolitano Fights the Good Fight for the Mentally Ill

Former Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., who may or may not have bipolar disorder, but who definitely committed more than 3,000 illegal financial transactions, was recently sentenced to 30 months in prison for absconding with $750,000 in campaign funds. He has harmed the cause of the mentally ill by reinforcing the stereotype that those with a supposed mental disorder engage in irresponsible and reckless, let alone criminal, behavior.

By contrast, Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), who makes no claim to suffering from a mental disorder, is a hero to the mentally ill for her stalwart work in devising programs to improve mental health care and reduce violence among children in schools.

On Friday, August 23, Congresswoman Napolitano and her mental-health consortium had their quarterly meeting at the Southern California Edison Federal Credit Union in Irwindale, Calif., roughly 20 miles east of downtown Los Angeles.

The meeting focused on providing housing for homeless veterans. The keynote speaker, Joe Leal, founder of Vet Hunters Project, dispensed with a microphone, bounded around the room that was filled with clinicians, health administrators and veterans, and illustrated his mission by speaking of how he had seen a homeless man at the Del Taco across the street. He asked him if he was hungry and if he was a veteran. It turned out that the man, Benny, was indeed a Korean and Vietnam veteran and that he needed food, which Leal bought for him.

An Iraq combat veteran, Leal has a compact torso and thick neck and still looks the part of a drill sergeant, but he is a drill sergeant with compassion and irrepressible energy. It is difficult to say no to Leal, whose sense of calm belies his intensity.

Leal introduced Juventino Gomez, a disabled Vietnam veteran and a councilman from the nearby town of El Monte. Gomez and El Monte Economic Development Director Damien Arrula unveiled the design of a new facility in El Monte for homeless veterans. It will feature 41 studio apartments, will include counseling services and will be located near the town's city hall, not out by a military base. The hope is that it will be easier for veterans to "integrate" into society this way.

While veterans issues took up much of the meeting, Congresswoman Napolitano, who, with her cherubic cheeks, looks like an older version of CNN political contributor Ana Navarro, also stood before the podium and discussed legislation that she has been working on, including Safe Schools-Healthy Students, a program to help children with mental illness. Napolitano first introduced the program in four schools in her Southern California district in 2001.

Wearing a yellow-and-white, striped suit and a string of pearls, Congresswoman Napolitano announced that there will likely be three new schools, one grammar, one middle and one high school, added to the current roster of 16 schools (up from 14, as per her press kit earlier in the year) that have already implemented the multi-lingual, early intervention program.

Since resurrecting the mental-health caucus in the House in 1999, a few months after being elected to Congress, Rep. Napolitano has come up with money from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and from Proposition 63, a state tax of 1 percent on the super-rich, to pay for Safe Schools-Healthy Students. With the Congresswoman's support, Pacific Clinics, the health provider for the program, has accessed the latter funds through the counties.

She has tried for many years now to expand the program nationwide and has enlisted Senator Al Franken, who is sponsoring the Senate companion bill.

As the Mental Health in Schools Act would require funding of $200 million in competitive grants for 200 schools across the country, it is viewed as an earmark and would have to be matched by a corresponding rise in revenue. This is a difficult proposition due to the intransigence of Congressional Republicans, some of whom, still in a pique over the passage of the Affordable Care Act, have threatened a government shutdown or a government default after September 30.

At a time when sequestration has forced cuts even to the iconic Head Start, with more than 57,000 children nationwide possibly losing access to its services, Rep. Napolitano's bill is dead.

That is a shame because SAMHSA studies have shown that the Safe Schools-Healthy Students program has reduced levels of depression and violence among students while improving attendance levels in the classroom.

Near the end of the meeting on August 23, Arjay Smith, an actor on TNT's Perception, a show that features a schizophrenic, mentioned that a friend of his and fellow actor, Lee Thompson Young, had committed suicide earlier in the week. The bespectacled Smith, who was dressed in a charcoal suit and was on his way to a memorial service for Young at Paramount, showed a great deal of wisdom as he noted that mental illness is not an issue that affects only veterans or the homeless. As he said, it also affects people in his profession and in the upper-income levels.

I can understand why many trot out the notion that the mental-health care system is "broken," a word we have been hearing with deadening repetition about a maddening number of public policies, particularly since then-Senator Barack Obama, running for president for the first time, used it to describe Washington itself.

Yes, there are problems with criminal justice in the U.S., including the over-crowding of inmates in prisons. And it is true that some of the incarcerated and homeless are mentally ill. But most people with serious mental illness will never spend time behind bars or on the streets, as I have stated before. Most blend in to society.

Legislators like Grace Napolitano deserve credit not only for helping at-risk children and teens blend in and succeed in life but also for conceptualizing and implementing creative ventures in spite of the gridlock in Washington. Her Safe Schools-Healthy Students initiative has improved numerous lives in her district and should serve as a model for a program across the nation.