Bring mental illness out of the shadows
By Kathleen Sebelius
February 4, 2013
Fifty years ago Tuesday, President John Kennedy shattered the national silence when he delivered a message to Congress in which he called for a bold new community-based approach to mental illness that emphasized prevention, treatment, education and recovery.
In the half century since, we've made tremendous progress as a country when it comes to attitudes about mental health. But recent events have reminded us that we still have a long way to go to bring mental health fully out of the shadows.
The vast majority of Americans with a mental health condition are not violent. In fact, just 3% to 5% of violent crimes are committed by individuals who suffer from a serious mental illness.
But we know that some instances of mental illness can develop into crisis situations if left untreated, and those crises can lead to violence. More often than not, those with mental health conditions direct these violent acts at themselves. Tragically, there are more than 38,000 suicides in America each year, more than twice the number of homicides.
This is just one of many ways untreated mental illness takes a toll on our society. Bipolar disorder and major depression are responsible for more than 300 million days per year in lost productivity. As many as three in 10 homeless Americans have a serious mental illness. In total, mental health conditions place a greater burden on our economy than cancer or heart disease; and yet more than 60% of people with mental illness do not receive help.
The Obama administration has already made great strides in improving access to mental health care. Because of the Affordable Care Act and previous legislation making care on a par with other illnesses, 30 million Americans will gain access to health coverage, including up to 10 million who have mental health issues. Mental health care must also be covered in the new Health Insurance Marketplaces, which will open in every state this fall to help citizens find coverage that fits their needs and budget.
The president has proposed additional actions that will make it easier for young people to get mental health care. This is critical since three quarters of adult mental health conditions appear by the age of 24. His plan would train more than 5,000 mental health professionals to serve young people and advance new strategies to make sure young people and their families continue to receive support after they leave home.
But we know that lack of coverage and access to services are not the only reasons people go without the care and treatment they need. The truth is that while America has come a long way, we are still a country that frequently confines conversations about mental health to the far edges of our discourse.
We often fail to recognize the signs of mental illness, especially in young people. And when we do see those signs, our first reaction is often not to reach out, but to turn away. This is a culture we all contribute to. And it's one that all of us -- community leaders, teachers, pastors, health providers, parents, neighbors and friends -- need to help change if we want to reduce the tragic burden of untreated mental health conditions.
That's why President Obama has called for a national dialogue on mental health that will be kicked off in the coming weeks. This dialogue will seek to address the culture of silence and negative perceptions of mental illness that keep so many of our nation's young people from seeking care. It will challenge each of us to do our part to create communities where young people and their families understand how important mental health is to positive development and feel comfortable asking for help when they need it.
The good news is that when people do seek help, we have much more effective treatments and supportive services than we did 50 years ago. The proof is the tens of millions of Americans with mental health conditions who are living healthy lives and contributing to their communities. But people will only take advantage of this progress if they are not afraid to seek help. Now is the time to work together to banish those fears and bring mental health out of the shadows once and for all.
Kathleen Sebelius is secretary of Health and Human Services.