Under George Washington’s ever watchful eyes in the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait, President Barack Obama on June 3 announced a very important new community campaign for a much different era. The event was an extremely-rare White House National Conference on Mental Health (hashtag #MentalHealthMatters). The President used the historical venue of the East Room to address the debilitating issue of mental illness stigma and to launch a national dialogue on mental health in order to encourage those with mental health and substance use issues to reach out and seek care.
The President underlined his hopes for the national dialogue. He said. “We must bring mental health out of the shadows.” To punctuate this point, he said “We know that treatment works and that recovery is fully possible. There should be no difference between seeking care for a broken arm and seeking care for depression.”
In the wake of the Newtown Tragedy, persons with mental illness frequently have been labeled and stigmatized inappropriately. Clearly, these reactions by community members result from fear of mental illness, lack of understanding about such illnesses, and lack of knowledge about recovery, effective treatment, and prevention. Such reactions do have a major negative impact upon persons who experience these conditions, and actually make them fearful to seek care. This problem also extends to our military veterans who are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with these conditions, as noted by Secretary Eric Shinseki of the Department of Veteran Affairs.
Almost one in four Americans struggle with mental health or substance use problems each year. Yet, only 40% of those with mental illnesses and only 10 % of those with substance use conditions receive any care. Those who need help too often are afraid to seek help because of the shame and secrecy associated with their condition. The new national dialogue will address how we all can work together to reduce stigma, and help the millions of Americans struggling with mental health or substance use problems recognize the importance of reaching out for assistance.
The conference brought together people from across the country, including individuals who have struggled with mental health and substance use problems and their family members, mental health advocates, educators, health care providers, faith leaders, and representatives from federal, state, county, and local governments.
Discussion panels were led by Secretary Kathleen Sebelius of HHS and Secretary Arne Duncan of the Department of Education. Both highlighted the importance of support from friends, family, and one’s community. The latter panel also explored the critical role of social media in reaching tweens, teens, and young adults.
Simultaneously, HHS launched on June 3 a new website, MentalHealth.gov, to continue the conversation begun at the White House Conference. The purpose of the website is to provide mental health information and resources for individuals struggling with mental health problems, friends and family members, educators, and other community members. Specifically, the site will feature information regarding the basic signs of mental health problems, how to talk about mental health, and ways to find help.