Mental Illness: Let the Dialogue Begin

JUN. 05, 2013

On Monday, June 3, President Obama hosted a White House Conference on Mental Health. It was remarkable in several respects.

For one, President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, celebrities Bradley Cooper, Glenn Close and other participants were all singing the same song—articulating messages that could have been taken from NAMI’s own website. In fact, some of them were.

NAMI members were thrilled, for example that the conference website www.mentalhealth.gov includes a NAMI video with poet, author and advocate Yashi Brown—who also participated in the conference.

The President’s remarks proclaimed a goal of bringing mental illness “out of the shadows,” ending stigma and elevating mental health concerns to the level of a national dialogue. 

The conference was not about preaching to the choir. Leaders from the mental health community participated, but so did representatives of broader communities such as the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, the National Baptists Convention, U.S. and Save the Children—and social media leaders such as Facebook, Google, Upworthy and Web M.D.

The conference also a represents a new model—in which  the dialogue begun at the White House event will purposely extend over time to other communities in other places. The initiative is not branded—neither the presidential seal, the NAMI logo nor the imprint of any other organization appears on the website. The identity is simply “the national conference.” The goal is a broad national movement for change.

The White House released a list of list of initiatives that specific groups will undertake as part of the dialogue, including one in which NAMI is partnering with the National Panhellenic Conference (NPC) and North American Interfraternity Council (NIC) cited by the White House to deliver mental health education presentations on approximately 800 campuses starting this fall.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) which represents television and radio stations and networks, will launch a national public service announcement (PSA) campaign to combat stigma.

One of the purposes of any conference is to bring people from diverse background together, focus on a common interest and both build and energize a broader community

The White House conference accomplished that purpose. At one point, as I sat a break-out session with eight other people, I was gratified to realize that three of them already had connections to NAMI in some way. With our grassroots network of NAMI State Organizations and NAMI Affiliates nationwide, we are well-situated to influence the dialogue—as the largest grassroots mental health organization in the country.

The conference was historic, but we must keep it in perspective.

Talk precedes action. The role of conferences is to help stimulate action. But they are not a substitute for action.

The real challenge is to expand awareness and support for improving the lives of individuals and families affected by mental illness. That means creating a mental health care system that is truly accessible to all who need it, when they need it.

In 2000, President Clinton convened the first White House Conference on Mental Health. In 2003, President Bush created a Presidential Commission on Mental Health.  They resulted in some progress, particularly in enacting mental health insurance parity.

But there is still a long way to go.

The White House Conference recognizes that real change happens through communities.

It is a call to keep building on progress. It is a call to build new partnerships and to expand health care—including Medicaid, which NAMI recently highlighted in a special report.

It is a call for support of young people, veterans, and families affected by mental illness.

It is a call for scientific research.

It is a call for early identification and treatment.

Ultimately, it is a call for national investment.

Let the dialogue begin.

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