President Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary Sebelius at the White House National Conference on Mental Health
Landmark Mental Health Conference Convened
One in five American adults experiences a mental illness each year, with young people affected at a similar rate, President Barack Obama told participants at the June 3 White House National Conference on Mental Health. "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," said the President. "And yet, we whisper about mental health issues and avoid asking too many questions."
"I mean it from the bottom of my heart. You can help change — fundamentally change — the way we deal with mental health problems in this country."
- Vice President Joseph Biden
The President described the main goal of the conference as being one of moving mental illness out of the shadows. The conference brought together representatives from local, state, and federal government, mental health advocates, educators, health care providers, lawmakers, faith leaders, and individuals who have experienced mental health problems themselves. They explored how people can work together to reduce negative attitudes and encourage those experiencing problems to seek help. SAMHSA Administrator Pamela Hyde, J.D., and SAMHSA Center for Mental Health Services Director Paolo del Vecchio, M.S.W., also participated in the event.
The conference was just the beginning, however. It called for Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Education Secretary Arne Duncan to launch community conversations to increase understanding about mental health.
The event included an announcement that dozens of organizations committed to helping the Administration with the new initiative (see "Collaborating to Increase Understanding"). These efforts include activities in five general areas:
- Launching new public awareness efforts on television, radio, social media, and beyond;
- Teaching students about mental health and helping adults who work with young people to recognize early warning signs and refer kids to treatment;
- Giving health care providers the tools they need to screen for mental health problems and encouraging them to lead awareness efforts in their communities;
- Convening experts, civic leaders, foundation representatives, and others to identify innovative ways to reduce negative attitudes and improve access to treatment; and
- Encouraging houses of worship and other faith-based organizations to have conversations to help people recognize warning signs and refer to treatment.
Glenn Close spoke at the National Conference on Mental Health. Prompted by the experiences of a sister with bipolar disorder and nephew with schizoaffective disorder, the award-winning actress co-founded Bring Change 2 Mind, a nonprofit working to end discrimination against those with mental illness.
The ultimate aim is to help Americans live healthy and productive lives by increasing access to affordable, effective behavioral healthcare services. Currently, less than 40 percent of people with mental illness receive treatment. Even though three-quarters of mental illnesses emerge early in life, only half of children with mental health problems get treatment.
Plus, the President said, it's not enough just to encourage more Americans to seek out treatment. "We also have to make sure that the treatment is there when they're ready to seek it," he said.
The Affordable Care Act will do just that. The law will expand mental health and substance use benefits to more than 62 million Americans. Starting in 2014, the law will also prevent insurers from denying coverage because of preexisting mental health conditions. The law already requires new health plans to cover depression screening for adults and behavioral assessments for children without cost sharing.
Most importantly, the President said that "recovery is possible" and encouraged people to support those who experience mental health problems. He reminded Americans with mental illnesses that "you are not alone."
For more information about the community conversations and tools for starting a conversation of your own, visit MentalHealth.gov.
Collaborating to Increase Understanding
Former Senator Gordon Smith has a very personal reason for wanting to get involved in the new community conversations on mental health: About 10 years ago, he lost his son to suicide.
Today Mr. Smith is president of the National Association of Broadcasters, which announced a new public education campaign at the June 3 White House National Conference on Mental Health. The campaign will use TV, radio, and online ads plus social media to change attitudes about mental illness. "Gordon doesn't want other parents to go through the agonizing loss that he's endured," President Barack Obama explained.
The National Association of Broadcasters isn't the only group to respond to the President's call for action. The YMCA of the USA and American Psychological Association will create tools to help staff who work with young people identify possible problems and take action, for example. The American Medical Association and American Psychiatric Association will share materials to help physicians integrate mental health screenings into their practices. Civic leaders and their philanthropic partners will host facilitated community conversations to discuss how to raise awareness of mental health and make sure community members get the help they need; the first community conversations will take place in Sacramento, Birmingham, Albuquerque, Kansas City, and Washington, DC. Faith groups have also agreed to launch conversations by doing things like including mental health messages in services or bulletin inserts and organizing conference sessions on mental health.
Other parts of the government are getting involved, too. With an average of 22 suicides among veterans every day, the Department of Veterans Affairs plans to hold more than 150 mental health summits across the nation this summer. The goal will be to help service members and veterans understand that taking care of themselves off the battlefield is part of being strong.
Community Conversations Resources
Negative attitudes about mental illnesses are still prevalent: "Mental health problems don't affect me." "Mental health problems are caused by character flaws." "People with mental health problems are unpredictable and even violent."
Dispelling these and other myths about mental illness is one goal of the President's focus on increasing awareness and understanding of mental health. Fortunately, the initiative includes plenty of online and print resources to help start the conversation.
One key resource is a new website called MentalHealth.gov. This consumer-friendly site offers tools to help users learn mental health basics, warning signs, and tips on how to talk about mental health and get help. The site offers videos featuring both celebrities and ordinary Americans describing how mental illness has touched their lives.
SAMHSA is releasing a new toolkit to help communities hold discussions about mental health and mental illness. The first part of the Toolkit for Community Conversations About Mental Health, called the Information Brief, was released simultaneously to the White House National Conference on Mental Health. The Information Brief provides data and other facts helpful in creating conversations that break down misperceptions and promote recovery. The brief also covers topics such as the importance of early identification of problems, access to treatment, crisis response, and recovery supports.
The Toolkit for Community Conversations About Mental Health has two additional parts, an Planning Guide and a Discussion Guide. The Planning Guide will help communities plan the logistics of holding a community conversation and the Discussion Guide will help participants and facilitators engage in a productive discussion about mental health.