US Senator Alex Padilla and the Bipartisan Mental Health Caucus

Senators Alex Padilla (D-CA) and Thom Tillis (R-NC)
Senator Alex Padilla (D-CA)

U.S. Senator Alex Padilla was appointed as the first Latino Senator from California, filling Vice President Kamala Harris’s seat. Sen. Padilla won the seat in the following election. During his time in the Senate, Sen. Padilla has championed mental health issues, drawing from personal experience and his life in public service. Sen. Padilla, both individually and as co-chair of the Senate’s Mental Health Caucus, has been working to pass legislation to advance mental health access and services around the country.

In the early 1990’s, Senator Padilla was on a different career path. Having returned home to Los Angeles after obtaining a mechanical engineering degree from MIT, Padilla was struck by a political environment heading in a direction that would have negative impacts on marginalized communities. Feeling a call to action, Padilla jumped in to politics to help change his state’s political trajectory. Since then, Padilla has held various public office positions, ultimately being appointed to the Senate in January 2021 where he was later re-elected for a full six-year term.

ABILITY Magazine’s Chet Cooper joined Sen. Padilla in a virtual interview to discuss mental health challenges within our nation, launching the bipartisan Senate Mental Health Caucus with co-chairs Senator Tina Smith, Senator Thom Tillis, and Senator Joni Ernst, and creating a national support structure to help fight mental health stigma in America.  

Cooper: What got you into politics?

Padilla: My training is actually in engineering. I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from MIT. When I came home from college–this was the early ’90s–the politics of California were very different than what it is today. Most specifically impactful for me was seeing the campaign for what we call Proposition 187. Back in 1994, at the time Governor Pete Wilson was up for re-election; the economy wasn’t doing so well. There was a measure on the ballot that was very anti-immigrant. It would have disqualified immigrants and their children from benefiting from what they call social or public services, depending on who you talk to. What would that mean at a minimum? If you didn’t have health insurance and your only opportunity to see a doctor, if you were sick or for your kids to see a doctor, was to go to a county clinic. You wouldn’t be able to do that anymore. There was an element of that measure that would require school personnel, teachers and administrators, to report to the authorities anybody they suspected of being in the country undocumented. It was very cruel, very harsh the way it was written.

The measure passed in California by a big margin, including in Los Angeles. My parents were immigrants to the United States. They were hardworking folks trying to achieve the American dream. A lot of the families in the community that I knew were struggling the same way to achieve their American dream. I realized, if I wanted to see a change in the political direction of my state, I needed to get involved. The engineering degree still looks nice on the wall, but I dedicated myself to the public service back then, mid ’90s.

Cooper: Did you ever create anything that you were able to patent?

Padilla: No, not as an inventor, no. A little programming—CAD/CAM work in the mechanical design lab once upon a time—but once I jumped into politics, it was with both feet–managing campaigns, working as a staffer and, eventually, running for office in 1999. I’ve been in the public for a long time.

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Cooper: What was the trajectory? What did you first get elected for?

Padilla: The Los Angeles City Council in 1999, seven and a half years there, including four and a half years as council president. In 2006, I was elected to the State Senate. I served there for two, four-year terms, so a total of eight years. In 2014, I was elected California Secretary of State. Then I was in the middle of my second term when I got a call asking if I’d be willing to fill the vacancy created by Vice President Harris when she was inaugurated. So, initially appointed to the Senate, January 2021, re-elected in November 2022 for a full six-year term, and here we are.

Cooper: So, from knowing and watching TV and seeing how everything runs in the house, what is the most surprising thing you’ve experienced so far in this reality that you’re in, compared to someone who is viewing it from the outside?

Padilla: I used to say how bitter and partisan and divisive that Congress comes across in the news, that it’s not quite that bad behind the scenes. It’s still not the way it should be in terms of people trying to work together, trying to find common grounds, particularly reaching out across the aisle. I certainly try to do that a lot. The times we’re living in are very bleak. There’s the work of Congress, and then there’s campaign trail. It’s another election year, including the presidential election. Political rhetoric, just more and more intense, more and more negative. That in and of itself has a harsh mental health impact on individuals and, I think, the country as a whole. To me, it’s just a reminder, whether it’s at work or on the campaign trail, to be mindful and responsible with how we’re discussing issues.

Cooper: It’s funny you say be mindful, and we’re talking about mental health. We’ve had discussions around here about depression and suicide and all the things that come around potential mental health issues, and it’s a challenge, but, the more people like yourself that are pushing to bring more awareness, the better it is.

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NAMI ‘s Daniel H. Gillison, Jr., AFSP’s Laurel Stine, Senators Tillis, Padilla and Smith launch Senate Mental Health Caucus

What got you into a lot of the work you’re doing around mental health?

Padilla: I’ll get to the policy urgency in a minute, but I think, with a lot of issues that we care about and are active in, there’s absolutely a personal connection. It’s personal. From my very first date with my wife, Angela, she shared with me her experiences growing up as not just a daughter to a single mother, but as her mother’s caretaker and advocate. Her diagnosis is bipolar 1 with schizoaffective disorder; so a pretty severe diagnosis. Just having learned and been inspired by Angela’s experience over the years and her family rallying around the support of my mother-in-law, it drove home the lesson. She’s doing well. We say she’s thriving. So, if there’s hope for her, there’s hope for almost anybody. We know that there’s certainly significant need around the country for improved mental health support. The need for better access to mental health services and care by the numbers. It was an epidemic before the COVID-19 pandemic, but COVID really put a spotlight on the need and exacerbated the crisis. It was with a sense of urgency that we wanted to raise the conversation, the priority level, in Congress and not particularly here in the Senate.

Cooper: Tell us about the work you’ve been doing with the bipartisan caucus that you helped put together.

Padilla: Sure. A lot of credit, frankly, goes to not just my colleague, Senator Tina Smith on the Democratic side, but my Republican colleagues, Senator Tillis and Senator Ernst. The four of us are the founding co-chairs of this caucus. It was important to make it bipartisan. Far too often, issues become very partisan very quickly, and it makes it harder to make progress as a result. Mental health challenges have no boundaries. It’s not a red state issue; it’s not a blue state issue. It’s a people issue. I give them credit for recognizing that. It was interesting, as soon as we broached the conversation about the idea, the first part of my response was not statistics and position papers, but personal stories, personal connections. Senator Tillis shared his with me. Senator Ernst shares hers. It’s become one of the first priorities of this caucus. How do we use this as a platform for people to share their stories, and, in so doing, both deliver the message and maybe a little inspiration for anybody out there to share theirs? One of the big challenges that we have in improving mental health in America is overcoming stigma.

There’s still far too many people that are either too embarrassed or shy or reluctant to come forward and ask for help when they need help because of the stigma around mental health. This is something I learned first from my wife, Angela: If somebody hurts their leg, we don’t hesitate to go get it checked out by a doctor. Maybe you need an X ray. If you’re suffering from a heart attack, there’s no shame in going to a doctor, to a hospital, and the care that you need. But when it comes to what something may be wrong with the brain, a very precious organ, there’s still that stigma. We need to overcome that stigma. A lot of that is by leading by example and willing to share our stories and being very public about experiences. That’s one of the first goals of the caucus.

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Cooper: What practical things have you been able to put together to actually support someone that may be looking for some help connected to mental health?

Padilla: The first thing I’ll point to is the first bill that we’ve introduced as a caucus. Recently, the country rolled out a 988 system, similar to 911, but a dedicated number, easy to remember, that anybody can call if you need somebody to speak to, if you’re in a crisis or observe somebody in a crisis. There’s somebody available to talk 24/7 in English or in Spanish, or to text with 24/7 in English or in Spanish to help walk you through a situation, whether it’s a crisis or not. When the number was rolled out, unlike 911, it didn’t come with the geo-location feature. Somebody calling to be connected with somebody based on the area code of your phone number. While for most people, that may not be an issue, increasingly, people are traveling or moving these days. My cell phone that I use in Washington, DC, still has my area code back in Los Angeles. If I needed the support or somebody to respond quickly, it’s better if I’m connected with somebody that’s more local to where I am.  As a caucus, we knew this was an important improvement to make the 988 sooner rather than later.

Other priorities for the caucus are—Number one, the Safer Communities Act that was passed and signed into law a couple of years ago now–almost two years ago now–included a huge amount of funding for mental health services across the country. This is the bill that came after the shooting in Uvalde, Texas. This investment in mental health programs is hugely significant, so why not make sure that those dollars are moving quickly, appropriately, strategically and responsibly because of the need that’s out there? Then the last piece I’ll just mention right now is our bipartisan recognition of the need to have a plan when it comes to workforce. If we’re encouraging more people to seek help when they need it and to overcome the stigma and reluctance to seek help, then we need to make sure that there’s enough psychiatrists, psychologists, and counselors, therapists, and all the folks who work in the mental health space to be able to provide that support and to provide that level of service. Having a plan with some incentives for a workforce development is another priority.

Cooper: Can we dig into that a little bit? How would that actually play out?

Padilla: The funding will eventually be actually invested through state and local governments. So, it’s federal funding that’s moving to states and to communities. Each state may have different needs, so their plans and priorities are being worked on literally as we speak. That’s how it would happen.

Cooper: So, it will be the way the states might roll out the funding to allow employees to access that service?

Padilla: Correct. Making that money available. I’m blessed and fortunate to represent California, that’s been a thought leader when it comes to mental health. There’s a lot of infrastructure in place, a lot of good policy modernization happening in California, but not every state can say the same. So, knowing that this funding is available can also lead state and local leaders to recognize, “No, this is a priority”. Whether you recognize it or not, now there’s some resources available to develop your plans as a state or as a region and put better support systems in place.

Cooper: Anything connected to the work you’ve been doing that helps with additional funding for mental health for the homeless?

Padilla: Definitely. One of the things that we recognize is not every person with a mental illness is homeless, and not every person experiencing homelessness, has a mental illness, but there’s significant, significant overlap. A lot of the strategies at the grassroots level will reflect that. For all the emphasis there is on additional need for housing, particularly, affordable housing and transitional shelters. That is important, but it’s really hard to bring somebody in from the outdoors, sustainably, if we’re not also providing the mental support. They go hand in hand.

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Sen. Padilla and his family with Vice President Kamala Harris after being sworn in for his first full term as a U.S. Senator, January 2023

Cooper: How do you see it planned out? Are you just helping with the funding and again back to the states to figure those things out?

Padilla: So, funding will go to the states. We’ll work with the states to recognize what are the priority areas. In California, not just Los Angeles, not just San Francisco, but from San Diego to Sacramento to Fresno. I don’t know a medium to large size city that doesn’t have this challenge of utilizing mental health services as a core strategy in supporting the unhoused population that come into an affordable housing. It’ll be a lot of community grants.

Cooper:  I feel like there’s a big need for more support–people trained to help do this. Somebody in our team is a psychiatrist, and she had a program she was working with. She would go to an alley and work with people with mental health issues because they were not going to go into a clinic. They were not going to come in to visit a physician.

Padilla: I’m from Los Angeles where there are these on the street outreach programs and programs to move people from an unhoused situation to transitional shelters to eventually longer-term housing. It’s not new. We know the strategies that are proven to work, but they need to be scaled up much more significantly, and hopefully quickly, to address the numbers that we’re seeing, not just in Los Angeles, but in communities throughout the state and throughout the country.

Cooper: So, I noticed that you were talking about the stigma within the Hispanic community. Can you address that?

Padilla: Sure. On the one hand, 988 is not just in English, but available for people seeking to speak with somebody or text with somebody in Spanish. That goes a long way of better serving the diverse population, not just of California, this is a very diverse country as a whole. Separate from the caucus, I have my own piece of legislation that would seek to advance, through investments, a culturally competent and linguistically competent workforce. As I mentioned earlier, encouraging more people to seek help. When more people seek help, we need to make sure that we have the capacity to provide that support and not just more doctors and counselors, therapists, et cetera, but the workforce that has the language and cultural competency to best serve that diverse population.

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Cooper: It’s great that you have 988 going. Has there been thoughts about how someone who is deaf can access 988? Have you put that message out there?

Padilla: That’s one of the other pieces that they’re working on–sooner rather than later. That’s why the text messaging component is so important, so someone deaf or hard of hearing can still have that ability.

padilla family
Sen. Alex Padilla (D-CA) and family

Cooper: You were also doing something with schools and behavioral health. Can you address that?

Padilla: Yes. The funding approved through the Safer Communities Act has significant amounts of the mental health dollars dedicated to schools. It’s been a long-time effort to try to maintain a nurse in every school, whether it’s to administering medications or putting band aids on cuts. This is the father of three boys speaking. It’d be a dream scenario to have a counselor or a therapist at every school or, ideally, even a wellness center on every campus. Relatively new concepts in the United States, but those that are proven to be very helpful to students and communities. With the resources, we can expand that model much sooner rather than later.

Cooper: Great meeting you. Let’s stay connected and your team as well to keep this message going through ABILITY Magazine and it’s channels.

Padilla: Yes, I’ll chat with the team and see how we—the other founding co-chairs—can help. Have a great day.

Senator Alex Padilla

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