Obama calls for national conversation about mental health

President Obama spoke about a need for a shift in American attitudes toward mental illness Monday morning at the White House’s conference on mental health. (The Washington Post)

President Obama pressed Monday for a more-open dialogue on mental illness, which has been a focus of his administration since a string of mass shootings last year sparked discussions on bolstering the nation’s mental health services.

In remarks at the White House, Obama noted that most mentally ill people are not violent and that many violent people have no diagnosable mental problem. But mentally ill people are more likely to commit suicide, he said, and “when a condition goes untreated, it can lead to tragedy on a larger scale.”

Lamenting the stigma associated with mental illness, he said, “Too many Americans who struggle with mental health illnesses are still suffering in silence, rather than seeking help. And we need to see [to] it that men and women who would never hesitate to go see a doctor if they had a broken arm or came down with the flu, that they have that same attitude when it comes to their mental health.”

The event occurred more than a month after the failure of one of Obama’s legislative priorities, a bill that would have imposed new gun-control measures in the aftermath of the December school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

An amendment to the bill that had broad bipartisan support would have provided grants to teach “mental health first aid” to emergency workers, teachers and others who might interact with someone struggling with mental illness. Advocates are hopeful the measure will be reintroduced in Congress later this year.

Obama’s remarks came at the White House-sponsored National Conference on Mental Health, which brought together advocates, elected officials, faith leaders and others to discuss ways to reduce the stigma of mental illness, which the president said is a barrier to those needing help.

The conference was also a way for the administration to highlight steps it has taken to bolster mental health services. Those actions include a provision in the 2010 Affordable Care Act requiring health insurers to cover mental health services as an essential benefit, and a White House initiative aimed at mapping the human brain.

The administration also has reached out to nonprofit and business groups, which unveiled several new projects in conjunction with the conference. Among them are a new wave of youth-oriented public service announcements to air on MTV; a media campaign targeting veterans; and an effort to disseminate information about mental health services on Internet message boards frequented by video gamers.

Advocates say the president’s attention to the issue has been a boon.

“To the extent there is now a public discussion on mental health, that is a positive,” said Chuck Ingoglia, a senior vice president at the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare.

In his remarks, Obama singled out young people and veterans as groups particularly in need of attention on the issue of mental health. But he described it as a broader problem because one in five Americans suffers from mental illness, touching virtually everyone in one way or another.

He said that many physical disorders get attention on television, “some of them very personal,” pausing for effect as the audience laughed at the allusion to ubiquitous erectile dysfunction ads. “And yet, we whisper about mental health issues and avoid asking too many questions,” he said. “The brain’s a body part, too. We just know less about it.”

Also appearing at the conference were Vice President Biden, who has been deeply involved in White House efforts on mental health; actress Glenn Close, who has a sister with bipolar disorder and a nephew with another mental illness, and has started a mental health nonprofit group; and former senator Gordon H. Smith (R-Ore.), whose son committed suicide.

Sandhya Somashekhar is a health reporter for the Washington Post.
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