Rep. Napolitano gets celebrity support for mental health bill

According to Napolitano's office, "one in five children and adolescents in the United States currently suffers from a mental illness, and most will have shown their first symptoms by age 14. Professional treatment can prevent depression, crime, imprisonment and suicide later in life, but lack of support for mental health services has left many youth without help."

The legislation would: 

• Authorize grants for K-12 public schools to implement mental health programs administered by state-licensed or state-certified mental health professionals;

• Train school and community service staff to identify and support students who need immediate mental healthcare or are at-risk for mental health disorders, so teachers can focus on teaching;

• Educate students and their families, as well as the rest of the community; and

• Require schools to document their progress and demonstrate the steps they're taking to be able to sustain their programs without federal grants.

The program is modeled on a similar program that Napolitano launched in her district with an earmark in 2001. The program now operates in eight local schools and is being expanded to three more.

"At the time it was hard to get the schools to even consider putting it on site, because it was known as the crazy school," Napolitano said. "Now we have schools begging to be brought on."

Immediately after the Jan. 8 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), Napolitano had expressed hope that the tragedy would be a wake-up call for Congress to tackle mental health issues. A briefing on how to spot potentially dangerous constituents that the congresswoman put together with her caucus co-chairman, Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), attracted an overflow crowd of 60 to 70 staffers a few weeks ago. Many experts agreed the alleged shooter, Jared Loughner, showed signs of mental illness.

Since then, though, congressional interest has died down along with dwindling media coverage.

"It's out of sight, out of mind," Napolitano told The Hill this week. "It's the same with the school shootings: There's a very big acknowledgment that we need to do something, and then it goes away.

"It's not something that gives you the votes," she added. "Children don't vote. And adults, they'd rather hide the issue because of the stigma associated with it."

Republicans in the House seem more interested in slashing mental health spending than increasing it. 

An amendment to the continuing resolution that would have cut funding for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration by $98 million (down from $3.2 billion) passed by voice vote Wednesday night but was postponed indefinitely after Democrats asked for a roll call.

Still, Napolitano points to the success of the pilot program in her district, which began as a suicide prevention program for adolescents, as reason for hope.

"Since its inception the program has worked with a participant population that match or exceed national statistics with regard to reported substance use, past suicide attempts, and suicidal ideation," says a 2008-09 evaluation report. "Despite this, no program participant has completed a suicide."