It’s always encouraging to see the conversation about mental health in this country moving forward in a positive direction.
On June 3, President Obama used his bully pulpit to do just that by convening a National Conference on Mental Health at the White House. He opened last Monday’s conference with a speech expressing his desire to “bring mental illness out of the shadows.”
Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius held a question and answer session and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan moderated a panel. Vice President Joe Biden spoke to conclude the conference. Bradley Cooper and Glenn Close attended. The whole thing even got a few posts on my Facebook news feed.
However, I couldn’t help but feel patronized by the conference.
I have bipolar disorder, and I’m glad the president wants to “elevate [the mental health] conversation to a national level.” But if he really wanted to help fix the mental health crisis, he’d be doing a lot more than just talking about it.
Consider the itinerary reported by attendee Dr. John Grohol. “The day started out with a modest standing reception in the Entrance Hall of the White House. Over 150 people gathered together and mingled.” After the President’s speech and the panels, ”we then broke out into networking sessions of about two dozen people per room.”
Mingling and networking sessions are fine at a company retreat, but in this instance they shortchange the real issues people like me face.
The White House and the Department of Health and Human Services launched MentalHealth.gov and put together a set of commitments from private organizations “to increase understanding and awareness of mental health”. MTV will tweet about people supporting emotional health. The National PTA will hold an awareness webinar. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism will include mental health messages in its events.
Admirable though these efforts are, they will not be enough to actually solve mental health issues.
Fortunately, several of the conference attendees pointed to some of the main problems with effectively treating psychiatric issues beyond simply furthering the conversation. As the Associated Press reported, “public spending on mental health services has been slashed across the country in recent years, driven by the recession and in some cases a zeal to shrink government.”
Sen. Debbie Stabenow pointed out that funding for mental health doesn’t compare to funding for other health issues — even though it undoubtedly should. Even Biden acknowledged the deficit in mental health care professionals, saying the country needs at least 8,000 more.
In his remarks, President Obama raised the statistic that only 40 percent of Americans with mental health issues receive treatment, saying “We wouldn’t accept it if only 40 percent of Americans with cancers got treatment…Why should we accept it when it comes to mental health?”
However, as he should know, it takes more than merely accepting a change is necessary to actually enact that change.
In this case, the president needs to push for more money for mental health care. I’d rather him spend 15 minutes urging House Speaker John Boehner to increase funding than spending that time rehashing platitudes about mental health that everyone who pays attention to the issue already knows.
Last week’s conference helped make mental health a higher priority for advocates of all stripes, but we still need help to solve the crisis of mental health in this country before psychiatric issues take over even more lives.
Conversations alone won’t do the job. If we wish to have any real effect on the well-being of our nation, Congress and the president must hurry to better fund mental health care.