Washington -– Having stumbled on gun control, President Barack Obama on Monday called for a national dialogue on mental illness — a campaign touched off by last year’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
Speaking at the beginning of a day-long White House conference on the issue, Obama said the time has come to bring mental illness “out of the shadows.”
“I want to make sure people aren’t suffering,” he said.
Among 23 executive orders Obama signed in January in response to the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary was a directive that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Education Secretary Arne Duncan launch a national dialogue on mental health.
Monday’s event is part of the effort.
While Newtown shooter Adam Lanza provoked the White House campaign, Obama stressed most mentally ill people are not violent and are usually the victims, not perpetrators, of crimes.
The president said fewer than 40 percent of people with mental illness receive treatment.
“Now think about it. We wouldn’t accept it if only 40 percent of Americans with cancers got treatment. We wouldn’t accept it,” Obama said
The president unveiled a few initiatives, including the hiring of 1,600 new mental health workers for the veterans hospitals and medical centers.
“We lose 22 veterans a day to suicide. We have to do a better job,” Obama said.
Sebelius announced the launch of a new website, www.mentalhealth.gov, where sufferers of mental illness and their families can share stories.
Hollywood added star power to the conference. Glenn Close, co-founder of Bring Change 2 Mind, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending the stigma associated with mental illness, was on one of the panels. She said she became active in the illness because her sister has bipolar disorder and her nephew suffers from schizophrenia.
Bradley Cooper, who played a victim of bipolar disorder in the movie, “Silver Lining Playbook,” was also scheduled to participate in a panel with Vice President Joe Biden.
“I applaud any effort to bring awareness,” said Luis Perez, president of the Connecticut Mental Health Association.
But he said legislation is also needed. He and dozens of other mental health professionals plan to come to Washington next week to lobby Congress on a bill that would fine insurance companies that don’t cover rehabilitative services for mental health patients.
Federal law requires insurers to provide parity in their treatment of all patients. But Perez said some fail to cover the same level of follow-up care for mental health patients that is covered for patients who’ve suffered a heart attack, stroke or other physical ailment.
“We want to put teeth in the law,” he said.
The president said he hoped the implementation of the Affordable Care Act would make mental health care more accessible. But, facing budget cuts and an uncooperative Congress, most of the new mental health initiatives discussed at the conference will come from the private sector.
The National Association of Broadcasters announced a new campaign designed to change attitudes about mental illness through TV ads and social media.
Obama also cited the greater interest of school administrators in holding assemblies on mental health and organizations like the YMCA that are volunteering to train staff to recognize the signs of mental illnesses in young people.