The National Conference on Mental Health convened by President Obama on Monday was a historic day — not to start a national conversation about mental health, but rather to elevate it. “So many of you have spent decades waging long and lonely battles to be heard,” said the President, in his opening remarks.
“Instead, it’s about elevating that conversation to a national level and bringing mental illness out of the shadows.”
Indeed. And while I’m preaching to the choir of voices who read this blog regularly, maybe through your social shares and Likes on Facebook, we can reach a few new people who might not know the secret of mental health — we all have it. And just like our physical health, it can sometimes go kablooey.
The day started out with a modest standing reception in the Entrance Hall of the White House. Over 150 people gathered together and mingled. Among many others, I met two great women from ReachOut.com, an innovative website targeted toward young adults and teens with mental health issues. Started in Australia back in 1998, Jack Heath took what worked in Australia over to the US in the mid-2000s. It’s a great website and resource for teens and young adults, and is worth checking out.
After coffee, juice and danish, we were ushered into the majestic East Room of the White House for Opening Remarks by President Obama (the transcript and video are here). It was an eloquent speech by the President, reaffirming the need to shine a spotlight on mental health on a nationwide scale.
It was followed by an interesting question-and-answer session moderated by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. It featured actress and founder of Bring Change 2 Mind, Glenn Close, head of the American Psychological Association, Norman Anderson, Active Minds’ speaker Janelle Montaño, former Senator and now head of the National Association of Broadcasters, Gordon Smith (who lost his son to suicide), and Barbara Van Dahlen, founder of Give an Hour.
We adjourned next door to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building’s South Court Auditorum (a stark contrast to the beauty of the East Room) for a few short talks (less than 10 minutes each, I’d say) from a handful of additional speakers, moderated by U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. These speakers included David DeLuca with DoSomething.org, who was talked about a new service to be called Crisis Text Line, and Sara Critchfield, with Upworthy, a social media sharing site. There were others, too, but I don’t have space to note them all here.
We then broke out into networking sessions of about two dozen people per room. It appeared somewhat random who ended up with whom (I did have Patrick Kennedy in my group, a really great guy and excellent orator), but it was a chance to chat with other people more intimately about how we can work together more closely in the future. I met a few great folks from a number of organizations which we’ll be featuring in the weeks and months to come as we figure out how to best work together.
The day finished with a brief speech by Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Secretary Shinseki, another brief few words from actor Bradley Cooper (who recently played a character who had bipolar disorder in Silver Linings Playbook, and Vice President Biden, who spoke for nearly a half hour.
As President Obama said, this is not the start of a conversation, but rather the continuation of a conversation on a heightened, national level. The Veterans Administration, for instance, has already hired 1,600 new mental health professionals since last August, to help meet the burgeoning demands of veterans’ mental health needs. And the President wants to hire another 5,000 mental health professionals hired to help young people better deal with their mental health needs in school.
These are very good starts.
But in the meantime, we still grapple with basic issues surrounding insurance and billing. The Affordable Care Act should make mental health care available to more Americans, but it remains to be seen whether it actually will or not because of discrepancies that still exist in parity.
I learned that sometimes it takes a President to get people from the same area — in this case, mental health — to sit down and talk to one another. As I remarked to Tracy Todd, Ph.D., Executive Director of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, I find it astonishing that professionals — and their leaders — from different backgrounds — psychiatrists, psychologists, marriage and family therapists, social workers, psychiatric nurses, etc. — don’t have these conversations on their own. And of course, include patients, advocates, clients, survivors and more in those discussions as equal partners (as they always should be).
I’m glad President Obama demonstrated the courage and leadership to hold this conference — the first held at the White House in over 13 years. I suspect you’ll see a lot more collaborative projects and efforts arising from it in the months to come.