06/20/2013 04:13 pm ET Updated Aug 20, 2013

State of Grace: Congresswoman Napolitano's Crusade for the Mentally Ill

When Congresswoman Grace Napolitano (D-Ca.) joined the House of Representatives in 1999, she discovered that the mental health caucus was "dormant," as she put it in an exclusive phone interview on Wednesday, June 19. She proceeded to bring the caucus back to life and to make mental illness in schools her signature issue. In 2001, she implemented a mental health in schools program in her own district, which now spans from El Monte to Pomona in L.A. County.

The program, which features on-site, multi-lingual, behavioral-health programs, originally began with one high school and three middle schools in Napolitano's southern California district and has since expanded to 14 schools. At the inception of the program, some administrators were afraid that their schools would be labeled "crazy schools," in the words of Napolitano.

A study from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) now shows that after one year of the program, which provides early intervention for at-risk children by mental-health counselors at the schools, 16 percent of students reported lower depression levels, 21 percent reported lower anxiety levels and 38 percent demonstrated better behavior.

In addition, SAMHSA indicated that regular attendance for youth attending schools improved from 75 to 81 percent and those receiving passing grades increased from 55 to 66 percent of students.

As for the issue of violence among children and teenagers, an issue often erroneously attributed to mental illness, the number of students involved in violent incidents decreased by 15 percent within three years of participating in the program.

I have written at length about how studies show that those with severe mental illness but no substance abuse problems commit only 3 to 4 percent of violent crime. Nonetheless, I recognize that there are some adolescents and young adults with mental illness who go on to perpetrate atrocities or violent acts. It is possible that Adam Lanza, who murdered 20 children and six adults last December at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., may have had autism or Asperger's syndrome.

Still, Lanza was an outlier because the vast majority of these rampages are committed by angry, frustrated, hateful, young men, who are not mentally ill at all. These killers have been able to obtain assault weapons and high-capacity magazines primarily because our nation refuses to implement comprehensive, nationwide, gun-control measures.

Unlike many people in public life, Congresswoman Napolitano is sophisticated enough to know that most of those suffering from mental illness are more of a threat to themselves than to anyone else. One of the first statistics cited in her press material for the Mental Health in Schools Act, H.R. 628, is that suicide is the third leading cause of death for young adults aged 15-24. Perhaps even more alarming, her press kit also points out that suicide rates among 10-14 year olds have doubled in the past two decades.

Congresswoman Napolitano first became a crusader on this issue when she learned that Latina adolescents were the demographic group most likely to attempt suicide. Since then, she has fought hard not only for at-risk children but also for veterans, whose rates of homelessness, mental illness and unemployment remain unacceptably high.

Among other issues dealing with veterans, Napolitano has advocated for years so that families of military suicides now receive condolence letters, a policy that still does not recognize the lion's share of suicides, those committed outside of combat.

When I spoke to her, she put on the speaker phone Joe Leal, an Iraq veteran and the founder of Vet Hunters Project. The two of them talked about how 61 percent of reservists and National Guardsmen in Napolitano's district are unemployed, a rate that shames all of us. Vet Hunters provides a "voice for the voiceless," said Leal, who spoke in a rapid-fire manner over the phone, reflecting his relentless approach to helping veterans penetrate through the bureaucracy and get jobs and better care.

Congresswoman Napolitano told me that roughly five years ago she enlisted the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and former Sen. Pete Domenici, the latter a Republican, who were willing to "run with our proposal" for the schools. But since then, Kennedy passed away, Domenici retired, and the bill is "languishing," said Napolitano. "We're back to square one," she added, indicating that she has not been able to convince a single Republican to co-sponsor the bill, not even Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), a psychologist by training, who is the co-chair of the House Mental Health Caucus.

The main problem for Napolitano is coming up with funding, $200 mill. for 200 schools. At a time when the federal government is facing a massive budget deficit, no Republican wants to sign on to the bill.

That is a tragedy because mental illness and suicide affect citizens of all political affiliations and all demographic backgrounds.

Congresswoman Napolitano should be commended for her dedication to this cause. As for the Republicans in the House, they should be ashamed of themselves.

If you or someone you know needs help, call the SAMHSA Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).