As Democrats and Republicans Convene, Let's Hope They Think of Government's History of Purpose and Courage

08/31/2010 03:27 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

As the Democrats gather in Denver to nominate a presidential candidate, let's hope they don't lose sight of government's appeal to the disadvantaged.

I often think of Paul Wellstone, the late senator from Minnesota, set out to achieve before dying in a plane crash in 2002. He was, perhaps, one of the first prominent members of Congress to push for insurance reform for mental health coverage.

And it's the message that gets lost when the petty little disputes take center stage.

Wellstone was a apolitical rarity, but a gem. He was also the first - and perhaps the only - leading member of Congress to push for mental health parity in health insurance coverage. He was a rare commodity in a political world that values accommodation and "triangulation."

When Wellstone died, his attempts to bring recognition and, no pun intended, sanity to mental health coverage died with him.

I think of Wellstone at a time when a certain population group - young people - is at its most desperate and vulnerable.

In 2005, the most recent report from the National Center for Health Statistics showed that 4,212 youth, or 10 percent of those who are between 15 and 24 years old, took their own lives.

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among this age group. In the same year, 272 children aged 5 to 14 years old committed suicide; this equates to 0.7 percent of this population, according to the New Jersey Association of Mental Health Agencies Inc.

Parents and teachers must be vigilant in recognizing signs of anxiety and depression -- both of which could be due to drug abuse or could indicate a risk of suicide, according to the NJAMHA.

For many students, a certain level of anxiety when starting school is normal. The changing school environment, the pressure to succeed, as well as concern about possible bullying, could be significant causes of anxiety.

However, for some younger people, anxiety could be a sign of a mental disorder, a biologically based illness that is just as real as any physical disease.

In either case, parents and teachers must be supportive by listening and comforting youth to help them work through their anxiety, and by remaining alert to a potentially more serious condition that needs professional help, according to the NJAMHA.

"With the appropriate treatment and services, most individuals can lead healthy, productive and fulfilling lives. By contrast, without treatment, students are more likely to experience worsened health symptoms, both mental and physical, which could interfere with their relationships and academic performance," said Debra Wentz, chief executive officer of the NJAMHA.