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Obama Pledges to Bring Mental Health “Out of Shadows”

WASHINGTON, Jun 4 2013 (IPS) - President Barack Obama tried Monday to jumpstart a new national discussion on mental health, sponsoring a conference with Vice-President Joe Biden aimed at reducing social stigma around the issue.

The event took place five months after two-dozen schoolchildren were killed in a shooting spree in the state of Connecticut by a killer who allegedly suffered from psychological problems. Since then bipartisan supporters have urged greater government focus on overhauling the country’s creaky mental health infrastructure.

“If someone had cancer in your family or diabetes, you wouldn’t be afraid to seek help or talk about it." -- Dennis Wharton of the National Association of Broadcasters

“For the first time in a really long history, we have a president who is actually doing something tangible on this issue,” Mike Fitzpatrick, executive director the National Alliance on Mental Health, an advocacy group, told IPS. “President Obama is actually moving into the community and bringing together groups that haven’t worked together before to develop new partnerships. It’s exciting.”

Fitzpatrick called the United States’ current system of care for young adults dealing with mental health issues “abysmal”.

According to President Obama, speaking Monday at the opening of the conference, one in five adults in the United States experiences some form of mental illness. In addition, some 22 veterans of war commit suicide each day.

“The main goal of this conference is not to start a conversation, so many of you have spent decades waging long and lonely battles to be heard,” the president stated. “Instead, it’s about elevating that conversation to a national level and bringing mental illness out of the shadows.”

President Obama announced the launch of the new website, mentalhealth.gov, a clearinghouse of information for those seeking mental health services. The site will also host stories of those who have overcome mental health-related problems.

“We also need a change of hearts and minds,” Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, said at Monday’s conference. “We need to break down social barriers and help people understand that recovery is very real.”

Alongside the website, U.S. media outlets across the country are set to start a coordinated national campaign aimed at destigmatising mental health. According to organisers, the campaign will start by focusing simply on getting those suffering from mental health problems to feel comfortable talking about their experiences.

“If someone had cancer in your family or diabetes, you wouldn’t be afraid to seek help or talk about it,” Dennis Wharton, a communications executive for the National Association of Broadcasters, told IPS.

“So this new ad campaign will include television, radio and online advertisements targeted at 13- to 24-year-olds with the message that is it okay to talk about mental illness.”

Wharton says the new ads will not star celebrities, but instead feature a cross-section of U.S. society. “Because mental health knows no gender or race boundaries – this affects all walks of life,” he says.

Years of cost-cutting

Significant resources will be aimed at people who have served in the U.S. military.

For instance, Blue Star Families, an advocacy group for military families, will be producing a series of ads featuring country music stars urging veterans with mental health problems to seek help.

According to Barbara Van Dahlen, president of Give an Hour, a mental health advocacy group for veterans, says it’s unsurprising that many veterans suffer from mental illness, given their wartime experiences.

“It doesn’t mean that they are broken,” she said Monday. “It doesn’t mean that they can’t be great parents, great partners and great co-workers.”

Van Dahlen stresses the need for trauma and substance abuse to be included in the category of mental illnesses. Advocates emphasise that substance abuse is an indicator of deeper problems, often mental health issues – and that dealing with those problems often helps with the substance abuse, as well.

President Obama announced that in coming months more than 150 “summits”, similar to Monday’s conference, would take place across the country. Hosted by the Department of Veteran Affairs, these will be held between July and September.

“What we ultimately want to do is take the conversations we are having today in the White House, and take them to school auditoriums, community centres, houses of worship, living rooms and kitchen tables across this country,” Health Secretary Sebelius said.

Nonetheless, she also warned of the presence of significant barriers to the new initiative, particularly given years of cost-cutting and the current environment of financial austerity.

“States have cut back on mental health services, and there’s no question that there has been dramatic reduction in state funding,” she said. “We have been trying at the federal level not only to keep federal funding, but also to increase access to services.”

The president’s 2014 budget, for instance, has a request for the training of 5,000 new mental health providers, particularly those who can work with people to transition into university.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Health’s Fitzpatrick, the United States currently requires a massive effort to train practitioners and other medical professionals to be able to offer some form mental health care. Currently, he says, many who are actively seeking help simply cannot find it.

First, however, the new Obama administration push on this issue is focusing on trying to make people comfortable enough to discuss their experiences in the first place. In closing comments Monday, Vice-President Biden drew on personal experiences to urge others seek out mental health-related help if they need it.

“There is nothing, nothing to be ashamed of if you are struggling with mental issues or if your child is or your spouse or your friend,” he said. “It’s okay. It’s okay to talk about it. It’s okay to ask for help.”

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