Obama calls for end to mental illness stigma

Actor Bradley Cooper, center, listens during a panel discussion at the National Conference on Mental Health, Monday, June 3, 2013, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Cooper and Glenn Close were among those gathering at the White House for a conference on mental health, organized as part of President Barack Obama's response to last year's shooting massacre at a Connecticut elementary school. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Susan Walsh

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Monday that he wants to end the stigma of mental illness and enrolled the star power of actors Bradley Cooper and Glenn Close at a White House conference organized in response to the December shootings at a Connecticut elementary school.

The event was designed to encourage those struggling with mental illness to seek treatment, although some attendees noted the government needs to provide more resources to meet that goal.

Despite its origins, there was a notable lack of discussion of gun violence at the conference. The president never mentioned the matter as he opened the gathering from the East Room, instead stressing that he wants to make it clear that the majority of the mentally ill are not violent. He said his main goal in hosting the conference is “bringing mental illness out of the shadows” and encouraging those suffering to get help, particularly veterans and young people.

“We whisper about mental health issues and avoid asking too many questions,” the president said. “The brain is a body part, too. We just know less about it. 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.”

The conference came after Obama’s effort to tighten gun control laws was voted down in the Senate. The need to improve the country’s mental health care system is something all sides of the gun debate have advocated.

“It’s really something that uniquely can bring our country together, whether the issue is health care, gun control, media violence, however they want to characterize it,” said Gordon Smith, a former Republican senator from Oregon whose son, Garrett, suffered from depression and committed suicide in 1998 a few days after his 13th birthday. Smith now heads the National Association of Broadcasters, which announced a new campaign to reduce negative perceptions of mental illness.

Close’s sister, Jessie, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 51 and Jessie’s son, Calen, spent two years in a psychiatric hospital with schizoaffective disorder. In 2009, Close’s family battles led her to help start a non-profit called Bring Change 2 Mind, which produces public service announcements to fight the stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness.

“The truth is the stigma has hardly budged,” Close said during a panel discussion on how to address negative attitudes moderated by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.