President Obama advocated on Monday to elevate the conversation about mental illness to “a national level,” with the goal of eliminating the stigma that surrounds mental health issues and expanding access to treatment.
The president made his comments during opening remarks to a day-long White House conference on mental health. The conference was inspired by last December’s tragic shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, whose perpetrator — Adam Lanza — had a history of mental health problems.
“All of you have shown an extraordinary commitment to what is a critical goal — and that is to make sure that people aren’t suffering in silence, and that we have the capacity to pool together all the resources and support and love that’s out there to go after an extraordinary challenge in our society,” Obama said to an audience comprised of mental health patients, their families, advocates, and medical professionals.
Obama’s rhetoric underscores the reality that the current U.S. mental health care system leaves millions of Americans by the wayside. Since the beginning of the recession, states have made massive cuts to safety net programs for the mentally ill. In Nevada, the cuts have been so dire that one state hospital began illegally dumping its homeless mentally ill patients onto buses for California, claiming that services would be more expansive there despite the Golden State’s similar cuts to mental health services. Affordable mental care is hard to come by for Americans who are financially better off, too. Inpatient services for mental health problems often have prohibitively expensive out-of-pocket costs, and many providers don’t accept private insurance due to low reimbursement rates.
Obama also empathized with the struggles that mentally ill Americans and their families face because of the stigma surrounding mental health issues, calling for a movement aimed at “bringing mental illness out of the shadows.”
“We want to let people living with mental health challenges know that they are not alone, and we’ve got to be making sure that we’re committed to support those fellow Americans. Because struggling with a mental illness, or caring for someone who does, can be isolating… It begins to feel as if, not only are you alone, but that you shouldn’t burden others with the challenge. And the darkness, day in, day out — what some call a cloud you just can’t seem to escape — begins to close in,” said the president.
In 2011, over 37 percent of Americans with a mental illness who should have been getting treatment didn’t because they thought care would be ineffective or unnecessary. An additional 35 percent didn’t pursue or discontinued care over fears that their families, friends, and employers would look down on them for receiving it.
The president’s calls to expand the safety net and reduce stigma surrounding mental health care are easier said than done. Although mental health has been in the national spotlight since Sandy Hook, some have used the issue to scapegoat Americans with schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, or bipolar disorder as violent “lunatics.” But the vast majority of the mentally ill aren’t violent — in fact, they are usually the victims of violence.
Back in February, Sens. Roy Blunt (R-MO) and Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) introduced the bipartisan Excellent In Mental Health Act to take some of the steps that the president has suggested. That bill would allow community mental health center to access federal funds and then require them to expand their services to include 24-hour crisis care and support for the families of mentally ill Americans. But in four months, the legislation has not made its way through the Senate. As federal efforts to address gun violence prevention and mental health care have stalled, some states have begun to tackle the issue on their own.