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Minnesota Democrat Al Franken has been positioning himself as one of the Senate’s key voices on mental-health care, following in the legacy of his late friend and predecessor, Sen. Paul Wellstone.
The first-term senator has spent years pushing for full implementation of a 2008 mental-health parity law (PL 110-343) that bears Wellstone’s name, among other priorities. And he’s already sponsoring two bills related to mental-health care in the new Congress, both of which he introduced last week.
Both measures come at a time when the nation’s mental-health system is attracting public and congressional attention in the wake of December’s deadly shooting at a Connecticut elementary school.
Franken said in a Jan. 31 interview he wants to take care not to stigmatize mental illness, noting that most people with mental illness are no more violent than the general population and are more often victims. But he thinks there is a renewed interest in mental-health issues, as well as an understanding of where the needs lie.
“It seems like there’s a lot of things regarding law enforcement and mental health that we got wrong ... that we can build on some of the stuff we’ve done to address that,” he said.
Franken said his interest in mental-health issues stems partly from family history, and he noted that he has written a couple of movies about alcoholism, including co-writing “When a Man Loves a Woman.” An ad released during his Senate campaign featured his wife describing her battle with alcohol dependency.
He also noted that Wellstone, the Minnesota Democrat who died in a plane crash in 2002 while running for a third term in the Senate, was a champion for mental health.
“I think that’s part of his legacy, and it, you know, to some degree falls to me to keep that going,” he said.School Legislation
Franken introduced a bill (S 195) Jan. 31 that is designed to increase students’ access to mental-health services in schools, even as budget constraints may be causing states to pull back those resources. Although the American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one school counselor for every 250 students, a summary provided by Franken’s office noted that the national average was one per every 471 students in the 2010-11 school year.
Across the Capitol, a spokesman for Rep. Grace F. Napolitano said the California Democrat is gathering original co-sponsors for the House version of the bill and plans to introduce it this week. Napolitano, who co-chairs the Congressional Mental Health Caucus, has introduced the legislation in multiple Congresses, but it has lacked a Senate companion since 2009 with the death of Massachusetts Democrat Edward M. Kennedy.