Obama: You are not alone. Recovery is possible. There is hope.

by Joanne Kelly

President Obama opened Monday’s National Conference on Mental Health with inspiring words for people with mental illnesses and their families. “Let people who are struggling in silence know: You are not alone. Recovery is possible. There is hope.” See a video of the president’s remarks or read the transcript.

He convinced me he understands the stigma problem. I am also convinced his words were not empty platitudes. He intends to do something about it, and the conference was a first step. A baby step, perhaps, but a step in the right direction.

The conference brought together people from across the country, including mental health advocates, educators, health care providers, faith leaders, government officials, and individuals with mental health problems, to discuss how we can work together to reduce stigma and help the millions of Americans with mental health challenges recognize the importance of reaching out for assistance.

Before the administration issued the final conference invitations, potential invitees were asked what they would do to launch or facilitate a national conversation about stigma. This was a brilliant move. We couldn’t just attend the conference and go home feeling smug. We had to figure out how we could be part of the solution.

INMI committed to three things:

· Develop and implement a national online database of organizations that are operating at the intersection of faith/spirituality/religion and mental health. The database will make it easier for groups to find each other, collaborate and share best practices.

· Deliver a webcast on what we have learned in our efforts to mobilize faith communities in our county to deal more effectively with stigma. Communities that are considering launching similar efforts can learn from our experience.

· Add three clergy-focused videos on suicide prevention to our Caring Clergy website to give faith-community leaders nationwide a quick way to educate themselves when the need arises.

A conference fact sheet lists commitments made by other participating organizations. For example, the YMCA is educating its camp counselors to recognize signs of mental health problems in campers. The National Association of Broadcasters is planning a national public service campaign to convince young people it’s okay to talk about mental health and help is available. The United Church of Christ is planning a Mental Health Awareness Sunday in October with the theme “Widen the Welcome: UCC for Mental Health” that will be rolled out at UCC churches nationwide.

Besides holding conferences, what is the current administration doing for mental health? It is investing in brain research and doing more for veterans returning home with traumatic brain injuries and PTSD. But probably its most significant contribution is the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which expands mental health and substance abuse disorder treatment to an estimated 60,000 people. Starting next year, insurance companies won’t be able to deny people coverage because of pre-existing mental health conditions. The administration also launched a new website, www.mentalhealth.gov, with tools for encouraging conversations about stigma.

I felt honored and privileged to attend the conference. I have read a couple of commentaries that were critical of the conference because it did not address the right issues. While  I understand those criticisms and don’t necessarily disagree with some of the points, I would rather give the administration kudos for doing something positive for mental health and continue to encourage them to address some of the structural problems in this country that make recovery difficult for those with the most severe and persistent mental illnesses.

Let’s continue to work together to take small steps in the right direction.

Joanne Kelly

Interfaith Network on Mental Illness

Co-founder and board treasurer

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the submitter. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the board of directors or members of the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness.