Obama Says Mental Health Illness Must Come Out of Shadows

President Barack Obama said he wants mental health issues elevated to a national discussion as he convened a conference today that follows up on last December’s shootings at a Connecticut elementary school that killed 20 children and six educators.

Obama said his goal is to “bring mental illness out of the shadows.”

“We want to let people living with mental health challenges know they aren’t alone,” Obama said at the White House as he opened the one-day meeting with Cabinet members and advocates.

The issue affects many returning veterans and millions of people who suffer in isolation or without treatment, he said. While Obama didn’t directly mention the Connecticut shootings, he said the impact can be seen “in the tragedies that we have the power to prevent.”

Actors Glenn Close and Bradley Cooper were joined by about 150 health-care providers, mental health experts and advocates, lawmakers, religious leaders and representatives of state and local government.

Close, in a workshop session, said Americans must end the “backbone of stigma.” This includes people who say they don’t want people with mental illness living next door, don’t want them “teaching my children,” don’t want them supervising the workforce, believing they will be violent and unpredictable, and “don’t want them taking care of my children.”

Behavioral Changes

“That is the reality of what people are still thinking in this country and across the world,” Close said, adding that will take “changes in behavior.”

The main goal of the workshop sessions is “to reduce stigma and help the millions of Americans struggling with mental health problems recognize the importance of reaching out for assistance,” the White House said in a statement.

Close, the Emmy, Golden Globe and Tony award-winning actress, will highlight Bring Change 2 Mind, a non-profit organization she co-founded in 2009 that’s dedicated to ending the stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness.

Close has battled mental illness within her family. Her sister, Jessie, is living with bipolar disorder and her nephew, Calen, is living with schizoaffective disorder. The organization produces public service announcements aimed at tackling the stigma and discrimination of mental illness.

Common Malady

Depression is the most common form of mental illness, affecting more than 26 percent of U.S. adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Other illnesses include anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, mental distress and Alzheimer’s disease.

The day-long conference, one of 23 executive orders signed by the president after the Connecticut shootings, comes after the Senate rejected Obama’s proposal plan to widen background checks for firearms purchases and ban assault weapons.

Obama said the Veterans Affairs department will conduct conferences at its 151 health-care centers between Jul1 and September 15 to help boost awareness of mental health programs for veterans.

The conference sparked commitments from many organizations. The National Association of Broadcasters is creating a public service campaign to change attitudes about mental illness through radio and television ads and social media. Former U.S. Senator Gordon Smith, now chief executive officer of the NAB, lost his son to suicide a decade ago.

Raising Awareness

Other groups promised educational campaigns to raise awareness of mental health problems and need for treatment, including MTV Television, Blue Star Families, National Parent Teacher Association, YMCA of USA, Boys and Girls Club of America and the American Medical Association, among others.

The government started a new website today, www.mentalhealth.gov, a clearing house for information, including a section on how to get help.

The mental health conference was being led by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Both were leading workshops, joined by Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. Vice President Joe Biden was to offer closing remarks later in the day.

To contact the reporter on this story: Roger Runningen in Washington at rrunningen@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at skomarow1@bloomberg.net

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