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President Barack Obama

Obama puts spotlight on mental health

By Jessica Zigmond
Posted: June 3, 2013 - 7:00 pm ET

In what amounted to an all-day public relations affair on Monday, the Obama administration sought to heighten the national discourse on both the understanding and awareness of mental health in America. Now, mental healthcare professionals are wondering what comes next.

President Barack Obama underscored the need for enhanced mental healthcare services when he made it a core element of his gun-reform proposal this year. And he continued that message during Monday's National Conference on Mental Health at the White House, which welcomed Vice President Joe Biden, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, members of Congress, mental healthcare professionals, and others who have advocated for increased behavioral healthcare services, such as former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) and actress Glenn Close.

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“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,” Obama said in his remarks at the start of the conference. “Instead, it's about elevating that conversation to a national level and bringing mental illness out of the shadows.”

The president emphasized that in a given year, one in five adults experience a mental illness, and 45 million Americans suffer from depression or anxiety, schizophrenia or post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The brain is a body part, too. We just know less about it,” he said. “And there should be no shame in discussing or seeking help for treatable illnesses that affect too many people that we love. We've got to get rid of that embarrassment; we've got to get rid of that stigma.”

Mental healthcare advocates acknowledge that doing so will cost money and resources at a time when lawmakers are seeking ways to cut federal spending. In his fiscal 2014 budget released in April, the president aimed to increase mental healthcare services by proposing $130 million to help train teachers and other adults to recognize mental illness in young people, including $55 million for Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness in Resilience in Education) to offer mental health first-aid training in schools and communities. He also called for another $50 million to train an additional 5,000 new mental health professionals to serve students and young adults, and $25 million for Health Transitions, a new competitive grant to support transitioning people between the ages of 16 and 25—as well as their families—in accessing behavioral health treatment systems.

“I'm really pleased that the president put a stake in the ground to try to create awareness around this issue,” said Steven Horen, president and CEO of Koved Care, a New York-based company that provides home care and care managers for elderly, psychiatric, oncology and palliative care patients. “I think it is great to try to create as much early diagnosis opportunities as we can, and schools are great place to do that,” he said, adding that the funding the administration has suggested is a “reasonable amount of money” for curriculum and development.

What needs to happen next, Horen suggested, is for the conversation to expand beyond the mental health needs of children in the United States.

“Nobody is talking about the impediments of getting people treatment under the current mental health structure,” Horen said. “It's great that we're focusing on kids, but you have hundreds of thousands of people over 18 whose families can't compel them to get treatment against their will.”

Horen said he'd like to see Congress host hearings on the matter and include mental health professionals who can provide informed recommendations for solutions.

In the conference's morning session, Sebelius said the administration hopes this additional dialogue at the federal level will lead to constituents adding pressure on state lawmakers to address mental health when they reconvene their legislatures in January.

The administration intends to communicate this message through television, radio, and social media campaigns. For instance, Facebook, Google, and Twitter have made commitments to the effort, while the National Association of Broadcasters is creating a public service campaign to reduce the stigma around mental illness.

“It was a PR event,” Linda Rosenberg, president and CEO of the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare, said of the White House mental health conference. “I don't mean that pejoratively. They did a great PR job of taking down the barriers of getting people help,” she continued, adding that the conference did not include “practical steps” around filling to capacity the providers and resources needed to treat people with mental health problems.

That's why Rosenberg—who sounded excited about the event and its emphasis on social media tools—said her organization will continue to advocate for Congress to pass mental healthcare legislation, such as Sen. Debbie Stabenow's (D-Mich.) Excellence in Mental Health Act, which would establish criteria for federally qualified community behavioral health centers, and authorize prospective Medicaid payments to centers that meet the new standards.

“If we don't have services, we're not going to get this done,” Stabenow said during the conference's morning panel. The Michigan Democrat told audience members she couldn't' resist plugging her bill and Reps. Doris Matsui's (D-Calif.) and Leonard Lance's (R-N.J.) companion legislation in the House. “We have been working very hard to make sure we have the same kind of funding mechanism for mental health that we do for federally qualified health centers.”

In his remarks, the president also highlighted an announcement Monday that the Veterans Affairs department has met its goal to hire 1,600 new mental health professionals that the president outlined in an executive order last August. As of May 31, the VA had hired a total of 1,607 mental health clinical providers to meet that goal. It has also hired 318 new peer specialists to work toward its goal of hiring 800 of those specialists by Dec. 31. The VA is expected to host more than 150 mental healthcare summits in communities across the country this summer, the president said.

Follow Jessica Zigmond on Twitter: @MHjzigmond

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