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White House Conference Aims to Reduce the Stigma of Mental Illness

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Obama, right, delivers opening remarks to the White House Mental Health Conference on Monday.

Efforts to increase awareness of mental-health issues and reduce the stigma associated with them got a boost Monday when the Obama administration hosted a national conference on mental health at the White House.

The event featured an impressive roster of speakers that ranged from the president and the vice president to actors Glenn Close and Bradley Cooper, who have been lending their voices to the issue.

President Barack Obama kicked off the conference by thanking participants for their commitment to mental health. “The main goal of this conference is not to start a conversation — so many of you have spent decades waging long and lonely battles to be heard,” Obama said. “Instead, it’s about elevating that conversation to a national level and bringing mental illness out of the shadows.”

Although he applauded some policy changes in the area of mental health, much of the conversation Monday was focused on how to improve understanding of mental-health issues as a society. Obama noted that mental health is often thought of differently than physical health. Less is known about the brain, but it’s a body part too, he said.

“There should be no shame in discussing or seeking help for treatable illnesses that affect too many people that we love,” Obama said. “We’ve got to get rid of that embarrassment; we’ve got to get rid of that stigma.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, for example, announced the launch of a new website, mentalhealth.gov, designed to give individuals a place to find help and share the stories of those who have prevailed over mental health challenges. And, among other efforts, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said his department would hold local mental health summits at each of its medical centers.

Participants in the conference included members of Congress — particularly those who have been working on mental-health issues — as well as mental-health advocates, health care providers, people who have experienced mental-health issues and others.

Obama recognized several groups that have made commitments related to mental health, such as the National Association of Broadcasters’ national public service campaign designed to decrease the stigma surrounding mental illness.

He also noted that the importance of mental health can been seen in the “tragedies that we have the power to prevent.” But while mental health has seen a renewed attention in the aftermath of December’s deadly elementary-school shooting in Newtown, Conn., including from Obama, the event was not a focus of Monday’s conference.

The president emphasized that “the overwhelming majority of people who suffer from mental illnesses are not violent” and that many violent people have no diagnosable mental-health issues. At the same time, he acknowledged that most suicides involve individuals with mental-health or substance-abuse disorders.

“And in some cases, when a condition goes untreated, it can lead to tragedy on a larger scale,” he said.

Obama also praised former Democratic Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who attended the conference, for his leadership on mental-health issues and his work in Congress on mental-health parity. And the president touted the 2010 health care law for expanding mental-health and substance-abuse benefits to more than 60 million people.

Although mental-health legislation was incorporated into the gun package that was considered on the Senate floor, the measure was pulled from the floor earlier this year. That’s left supporters in limbo.

In the House, meanwhile, lawmakers have been focused on gathering information about mental-health issues through letters and hearings but have not advanced legislation.

Rep. Tim Murphy, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, delivered a letter to the White House at Monday’s conference asking for the president’s help in obtaining information the committee requested from the Office of Management and Budget. The Pennsylvania Republican wrote that “serious questions have been raised on whether federal resources are being directed to evidence-based programs that are most effective at treating the seriously mentally ill” through the panel’s work.

The letter noted that the lawmakers have asked the agency to compile a list of all programs to help the mentally ill, the amount of annual funding for each and the amount that goes toward the treatment of serious mental illness, and they have not yet received a response.

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