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Summer 2013, Volume 21, Number 3

President Obama and Secretary Sebelius at the White House's National Conference of Mental Health

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.
Photo of actress Glenn Close at the National Conference on Mental Health.

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.

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