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The Conversation Continues: A Look Back at the National Dialogue

By Kelly Todd, NAMI Intern


 “We are here for you.” On June 3, 2013, President Barack Obama’s words rang out to an audience of health care experts, mental health advocates, administrative officials, psychologists, and community and faith leaders. For the first time since President Clinton’s White House Conference on Mental Health 13 years ago, the President of the United States had assembled leaders and pioneers of the mental health field to discuss the status of mental health in America.

The purpose of the conference, he said, was not to start a conversation on mental health but to elevate it to a national level, to bring communities together to talk about the challenges they face in regards to mental health and to spark change in mental health care. NAMI, NAMI State Organizations and NAMI Affiliates joined countless others in echoing the president’s call, joining together to embrace the fight for advocacy.

Rick Cagan, Executive Director at NAMI Kansas, has had an active role throughout the past year in elevating the dialogue. He participated as a facilitator at the Creating Community Solutions anchor event in Kansas City in which hundreds of community members and leaders from the Kansas City metro area and beyond came to discuss the mental health care system. Cagan and NAMI Kansas have also partnered with the Institute for Civic Discourse and Democracy at Kansas State University to create a mental health discussion guide which has been used to host multiple local forums on mental health. “These events,” Cagan said, “have set an ongoing conversation in motion.”

As the one year anniversary of President Obama’s National Conference on Mental Health arrives it is important that we as a country look both forward and back, appreciating the strides we have made in mental health care over the past year while addressing the hurdles we still have to pass.

President Obama’s address was a call to action for people across the country to join together, for local communities to take a look at their needs and implement resolutions for change, for advocacy groups to break down the barriers facing access to mental health care, for friends and family to support one another and for us as a nation to destroy the stigma attached to mental illness. Throughout the past year the efforts of the National Dialogue focused on five areas.

Media Campaigns. Media organizations nationwide heeded the president’s call and committed their help to the cause. In addition to others, the National Association of Broadcasters rolled out a multiplatform campaign in July 2013 promote the message that it’s okay to talk about mental illness.

The campaign ads, aimed at young adults, direct them to OK2TALK.org, a Tumblr-based community where young people with mental illnesses can share their stories of struggle, triumph and hope. Since the campaign began last July over $40 million of airtime has been donated to OK2TALK and the web page as received over 1.2 million page views.

Teaching Students about Mental Health. As a result of the National Dialogue educational associations and institutions around the nation have been taking a look at their mental health resources and implanting individual programs to improve upon the quality of resources and educational materials on mental health that are available to students.

The National Association of Secondary School Principals called on members across the country to host assemblies on mental health awareness. The National Association of School Nurses also increased their arsenal of mental health resources by developing a series of online courses that cover a breadth of mental health topics.

Giving Health Care Providers Access to Mental Health Resources. In response to the president’s address national health care organizations such as the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the National Association of Public Hospitals and Health Systems demonstrated their support by creating and distributing educational materials on mental health to physicians across the country.

Reaching Out to Faith Groups. Numerous local faith groups across the country committed this past year to educate their congregations on mental health, to develop and disseminate mental health resources and to hold local discussions to open up a forum on mental health.

Getting Local Communities Involved. Creating Community Solutions (CCS) is a national mental health program created in response to the National Dialogue. The purpose of the program is to keep the National Dialogue going by bringing it to local communities, to bring to issue of mental health out of the shadows and to create real, local solutions.

Since the program’s inception last year, over 150 CCS events have been held by local groups across the country. Rick Cagan, ED NAMI Kansas, who has helped facilitate and organize a few of these events, has said that the events aim to address what is missing from the mental health care system and where changes can be made, especially with regards to juveniles and young adults in the system.

Creating Community Solutions has also partnered with Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation to develop Text, Talk, Act, a program where small groups of people can sit down together, text a number and receive polling and discussion questions to get the conversation on mental health going.

The Obama Administration has continued to support the stand they took one year ago by increasing the federal funding for mental health facilities and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) by over $300 million in the 2014 fiscal year budget in an effort to better our mental health care system.

The dialogue has begun but it is by no means over. Millions of Americans with mental illness still go untreated because of the stigma of receiving treatment or because of a lack of knowledge of or access to resources. As the second year of the National Dialogue begins, make this the year you step up and join the conversation. “Being champions for these causes is not enough,” Cagan says, we must also get involved in legislative advocacy and make the changes we seek a reality. Which event are you participating in? For CCS events in your area visit http://www.creatingcommunitysolutions.org/.


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