As invitees endured the sweltering heat in Washington on Monday, June 7, one thing became very apparent: the first ever White House Conference On Mental Health, hosted by Presidential advisor Tipper Gore, was about mental illness. Over and over again, President Bill Clinton, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and Ms. Gore repeated the themes that NAMI consumers and family members have been advocating for the past twenty years. These national leaders invoked throughout the day the tenets of NAMI’s Campaign to End Discrimination: mental illnesses are brain disorders, treatment works and discriminatory policies that deny access to treatment must end. The historic conference marked the beginning of a new era in the advance of NAMI’s mission.
The White House Conference included most of the President’s cabinet, the Surgeon General, over a dozen members of Congress, and mayors and administrative officials from throughout the country. But, as soon became evident to the conference’s national audience, NAMI policy issues were the centerpiece for many of their discussions.
The NAMI Board and staff would like to congratulate our consumer and family membership and grassroots leaders for twenty years of hard work and tireless effort communicating the concerns of people with serious brain disorders and their families. The values and priorities of this organization have now been accepted at the highest levels of the government and are shaping mental illness policy at the national level.
Prior to the conference, NAMI executive director Laurie Flynn met with Ms. Gore and her staff to encourage and support the integration of issues that people with serious brain disorders and their families face every day. In a letter to Ms. Gore, Laurie Flynn made a strong case for the inclusion of NAMI’s policy agenda: increased funding for research of serious brain disorders, full parity in insurance coverage in the public and private market, increased employment and housing opportunities, access to state-of-the-art treatment (including new medications and PACT), dual diagnosis, and the alarming trend of the criminalization of people with serious brain disorders. All of these NAMI policy priorities were discussed at the conference, and now represent dominant areas of concern for the nation.
The White House Conference also featured a series of Presidential announcements intended to improve the welfare of people with serious brain disorders. Among these announcements, the President included a NAMI initiative that will require health insurance plans participating in the Federal Employees Health Benefits Program (FEHBP), the nations largest health care insurance program, to provide full parity coverage for federal employees and their families. The President also signed an executive order last week eliminating the government’s stricter hiring and promotion standards for people with psychiatric disabilities.
A major theme of the conference also was the stigma associated with mental illness. Building up to Monday’s event, the President devoted his June 5 weekly radio address to the announcement of a nationwide anti-stigma campaign intended to destroy the myths associated with mental illness. Although the details of the effort are not yet known, the initiative here too follows NAMI’s lead. NAMI’s Campaign to End Discrimination has focused on overcoming the stigma and discrimination by changing domestic policy that for too long has denied just treatment and services to people with serious brain disorders and their families. NAMI Campaign staff and grassroots leaders throughout the country have put forth tremendous effort in successfully getting state parity laws enacted by several states each year and ending discriminatory policies. Ms. Gore is working with Surgeon General David Satcher to produce the new White House campaign on mental illness and stigma.
All of these initiatives are a direct result of the constant and effective communication by NAMI members and grassroots leaders. Our collective efforts to push this message and sharpen the debate on issues directly impacting consumers and family members coping with serious brain disorders have succeeded. We truly have become the "Nation’s Voice On Mental Illness," and NAMI members should feel proud and invigorated.
But now, the hard work really begins. With national leaders now aligned with NAMI’s message, we must ensure that the conference vision is translated into effective treatment and services that too many of our loved ones still are being denied. We must push even harder to convert this moment into a better life for people with serious brain disorders and their families.