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June 03, 2013

Obama calls for mental illness to come out of the shadows

President Obama told a gathering of mental health advocates at the White House that he hopes a conference will elevate talk about mental health to a national level and bring mental illness "out of the shadows.

"We want to let people living with mental health challenges know that they are not alone," Obama said, adding that struggling with a mental illness or caring for someone with one can be isolating. 

He said that every year one in five adults experience a mental illness, with 45 million Americans suffering from depression or anxiety, schizophrenia or post traumatic stress disorder. He said that he and first lady Michelle Obama have known people who have battled severe depression.

Recovery is possible, Obama said, but "as a society, we often think about mental health differently than other forms of health." He noted there are TV commercials "about a whole array of physical health issues, some of them very personal." But, he added, "we whisper about mental health issues and avoid asking too many questions."

He called for an end to the stigma of mental illness, calling the brain a "body part" that "we just know less about.

"We've got to get rid of that embarrassment; we've got to get rid of that stigma," he said. "Too many Americans who struggle with mental health illnesses are still suffering in silence rather than seeking help, and we need to see it that men and women who would never hesitate to go see a doctor if they had a broken arm or came down with the flu, that they have that same attitude when it comes to their mental health."

Obama, who called for more attention to mental health issues after the Sandy Hook shooting last December, said a priority should be recognizing mental health issues in children and making it easier to seek help. He said fewer than 40 percent of people with mental illness receive treatment and  that although 3/4 of mental illnesses emerge by age 24, only about half of children with mental health problems receive treatment.

He said a number of groups are working to detect the signs of trouble and that the National Association of Broadcasters today announced a new campaign designed to change attitudes about mental illness through TV ads and social media.

He credited his own health care plan with helping to expand mental health and substance abuse benefits for more than 60 million and said new health insurance plans are required to cover depression screenings for adults and behavioral assessments for children. And, he said, beginning next year, insurance companies will no longer be able to deny coverage because of a pre-existing mental health condition.

Obama noted mental health issues affect troops and veterans -- with 22 veterans a day commiting suicide.

"We've got to do a better job than that of preventing these all too often silent tragedies," Obama said. He announced that the Department of Veterans Affairs is partnering with 24 communities in nine states to reduce wait times for veterans and has hired 1,600 new mental health providers. It will hold more than 150 summits across the country this summer.

"If you know somebody who is struggling, help them reach out," Obama said. "Remember the family members who shoulder their own burdens and need our support as well. And more than anything, let people who are suffering in silence know that recovery is possible. They're not alone. There's hope. There's possibility."


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"Planet Washington" covers politics and government. It is written by journalists in McClatchy's Washington Bureau.

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