(Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
President Barack Obama vowed on Monday at a conference at the White House to "get rid of the embarrassment and stigma" of mental health problems and help people who need help, tackling a serious problem in the country.
"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," the president said.
"And I think everybody here who's experienced the issue in one way or another understands that. 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 that you just can't seem to escape – begins to close in."
Following a string of gun shooting incidents in America last year, most notably the massacre of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December, America has been searching for answers about how to prevent future tragedies. Politicians have argued over gun control and the effects of violent video games and violent media on culture, but one link that a number of the perpetrators in such incidents have had is the struggle with some form of mental health problem or another.
While never singling out one particular incident, Obama mentioned that America has the power to prevent such tragedies.
"We've got to get rid of that embarrassment; we've got to get rid of that stigma. Too many Americans who struggle with mental health illnesses are still suffering in silence rather than seeking help," he said.
The president stressed that "the overwhelming majority of people who suffer from mental illnesses are not violent," and that many violent people don't come with diagnosable mental health issues, but reminded attendees that in some cases, "when a condition goes untreated, it can lead to tragedy on a larger scale."
NBC News reported that Obama's speech was only the opening in a daylong conference focusing on combating the stigma of mentally ill people seeking help, and that Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki and Vice President Joe Biden would all speak during the event.
Obama argued that there are a number of things the U.S. as a nation can do to help the millions of people struggling with mental health problems. He said that as many as one in five adults suffer from some sort of mental illness.
"In many cases, treatment is available and effective. We can help people who suffer from a mental illness continue to be great colleagues, great friends, the people we love. We can take out some pain and give them a new sense of hope. But it requires all of us to act. And there are a few ways we can do our part," Obama said.
The president praised the work of a number of groups, such as the YMCA, who are training staff to recognize signs of mental problems in young people, as well as the leaders of faith communities who are getting their congregations involved in such efforts.
"For many people who suffer from a mental illness, recovery can be challenging. But what helps more than anything, what gives so many of our friends and loved ones strength, is the knowledge that you are not alone. You're not alone. You're surrounded by people who care about you and who will support you on the journey to get well. We're here for you," he added.