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White House Hosts National Conference on Mental Health
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White House Hosts National Conference on Mental Health


On June 3, the White House brought together people from across the country to discuss how to work together to reduce stigma and help the millions of Americans struggling with mental health problems recognize the importance of reaching out for assistance. Attendees at the day-long National Conference on Mental Health included mental health advocates, educators, healthcare providers, faith leaders, members of Congress, representatives from local governments, and individuals who have struggled with mental health problems.

Building on Progress

The conference built on President Obama’s plan to reduce gun violence, which calls on Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Education Secretary Arne Duncan to launch a national conversation to increase understanding and awareness of mental health. The conference also focused on steps to raise awareness and improve care for those experiencing mental health issues, including:

  • Expanding mental health coverage,
  • Supporting young people, and
  • Improving access to services for veterans.

Following President Obama’s opening remarks (see his excerpted remarks below), a panel discussed why addressing negative attitudes about mental illness is essential to ensuring more people seek help; what is known about why these attitudes exist and the misperceptions they are grounded in; and what can be done to break down the barriers preventing people from seeking the help they need. 

That panel was followed by a session entitled “Ignite: Unlocking Innovative Campaigns,” which worked on applying successful techniques to mental health outreach efforts. The Ignite presentation format is a five-minute, slideshow-supported format being used to engage audiences around the country and the world. The session featured a series of brief TED-talk-style presentations by experts and organizations that have used creative ideas to promote their missions. 

Following a working-lunch networking session designed to help participants meet each other and identify opportunities to collaborate on ways to raise awareness in the broader community about mental health issues, participants heard closing remarks from Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, actor Bradley Cooper (who was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of a man with bipolar disorder in “Silver Linings Playbook”), and Vice President Joe Biden.

Click here for more information about the National Mental Health Conference.

The administration has also launched a new website on mental health, aimed at providing resources for those suffering from mental illness and sharing success stories from those who’ve received treatment.

President Obama’s (Excerpted) Remarks at the Opening of the Naitonal Conference on Mental Health

The main goal of this conference is not to start a conversation—so many of you have spent decades waging long and lonely battles to be heard. Instead, it’s about elevating that conversation to a national level and bringing mental illness out of the shadows. 

We want to let people living with mental health challenges know that they are not alone. We all know somebody—a family member, a friend, a neighbor—who has struggled, or will struggle, with mental health issues at some point in their lives. Michelle and I have both known people who have battled severe depression over the years, people we love. And oftentimes, those who seek treatment go on to lead happy, healthy, productive lives.

So we know that recovery is possible, we know help is available, and yet, as a society, we often think about mental health differently than other forms of health. The brain is a body part, too; we just know less about it. And there should be no shame in discussing or seeking help for treatable illnesses that affect too many people that we love. 

We see it in veterans who come home from the battlefield with the invisible wounds of war, but who feel somehow that seeking treatment is a sign of weakness when in fact it’s a sign of strength. We see it in parents who would do anything for their kids, but who often fight their mental health battle alone—afraid that reaching out would somehow reflect badly on them. 

We see it in the tragedies that we have the power to prevent. And I want to be absolutely clear: The overwhelming majority of people who suffer from mental illnesses are not violent. They will never pose a threat to themselves or others. And there are a whole lot of violent people with no diagnosable mental health issues. But we also know that most suicides each year involve someone with a mental health or substance abuse disorder. And in some cases, when a condition goes untreated, it can lead to tragedy on a larger scale. 

We can do something about stories like these. In many cases, treatment is available and effective. We can help people who suffer from a mental illness continue to be great colleagues, great friends, the people we love. 

First, we’ve got to do a better job recognizing mental health issues in our children, and making it easier for Americans of all ages to seek help. Today, less than 40 percent of people with mental illness receive treatment—less than 40 percent. We wouldn’t accept it if only 40 percent of Americans with cancers got treatment. We wouldn’t accept it if only half of young people with diabetes got help. Why should we accept it when it comes to mental health?

The good news is, there are plenty of groups that are stepping up to change that.

You’ve got secondary school principals holding assemblies on mental health. You’ve got organizations like the YMCA volunteering to train staff to recognize the signs of depression and other mental illnesses in our young people. You got leaders from different faith communities getting their congregations involved. 

Other people are leading by example: My great friend, Patrick Kennedy, when he was running for reelection back in 2006 [as Democratic representative from Rhode Island], could have avoided talking about his struggles with bipolar disorder and addiction. But he used his experience as a way to connect and to lift up these issues, not hide from them. [Kennedy was AMHCA’s honorary chair of National Mental Health Counseling Week in May 2001.]

[But,] it’s not enough to help more Americans seek treatment—we also have to make sure that the treatment is there when they’re ready to seek it. 

For years now, our mental health system has struggled to serve people who depend on it. That’s why, under the Affordable Care Act, we’re expanding mental health and substance abuse benefits for more than 60 million Americans. New health insurance plans are required to cover things like depression screenings for adults and behavioral assessments for children. And beginning next year, insurance companies will no longer be able to deny anybody coverage because of a pre-existing mental health condition. 

We’re also investing in science and basic research to make it easier to diagnose and treat disease early. And earlier this year, I announced an ambitious initiative to develop tools for mapping the human brain, which could help scientists and researchers unlock the answers to conditions that affect mental health.
We’re also doing more to support our troops and our veterans who are suffering from things like traumatic brain disorder—or traumatic brain injury or PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Today, we lose 22 veterans a day to suicide—22. We’ve got to do a better job than that of preventing these all-too-often silent tragedies. 

And today, under Ric Shinseki’s leadership, the VA is going even further. They’re partnering with 24 communities in nine states to help reduce wait times for veterans seeking mental health care. And they’ve met their goal of hiring 1,600 new mental health providers.

For many people who suffer from a mental illness, recovery can be challenging. What helps more than anything is the knowledge that you are not alone. 

If you know somebody who is struggling, help them reach out. Remember the family members who shoulder their own burdens and need our support as well. And more than anything, let people who are suffering in silence know that recovery is possible. They’re not alone. There’s hope. There’s possibility. And that’s what all of you represent with the extraordinary advocacy and work that you’ve already done.

So thank you all for being here. Let’s do everything we can to help our fellow Americans heal and thrive. 

Source: Read the full transcript of President Obama’s remarks. Or, view the video of the president's remarks.

Photo: Pictured in the photo at the beginning of the article are, from left, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D–Mich.), with actors Bradley Cooper and Glenn Close, at the National Conference on Mental Health, which aimed to let people living with mental health challenges know, “They are not alone,” and “Recovery is possible.”

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