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Community Conversation on Mental Health

Kansas City, Missouri
September 21, 2013

As Prepared for Delivery

Thank you all very much. It’s great to be here in Kansas City.

And a special thank you to Mayor Sly James and Mayor/CEO Mark Holland for hosting this important conversation.

Overcoming negative attitudes and misunderstandings about mental illness has been a challenge for too long in our country. It’s encouraging to see so many people representing so many different parts of society coming together to address this challenge today. I’m particularly glad to see all the young people here.

I want to talk with you this morning about the progress we’re making as a nation on behalf of the millions of Americans who experience mental illness.

But first I wanted to share a few thoughts on what happened earlier this week in Washington.

We were all shaken by the tragic events at the Navy Yard in Washington. Our hearts go out to those who lost friends or loved ones.

And we are reminded once again how important conversations about mental health are for our communities and for our nation.

We know the vast majority of Americans with mental health conditions are not violent – and it’s important to keep this in mind. In fact, just 3% to 5% of violent crimes are committed by individuals who suffer from serious mental illness.

But some instances of mental illness can develop into crisis situations if left untreated. And those crises can sometimes lead to violence.

More often than not, however, people with mental health conditions direct violent acts at themselves. Tragically, more than 38,000 people take their own lives every single year in our country. That’s more than twice the number of people we lose to homicide.

And 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 in lost productivity each year.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

But the challenges we face are significant: 60% of people with mental health conditions and nearly 90% of people with substance use disorders don’t receive the care they need.

One reason is that they lack access to care or insurance.

For too long, our health care system has left many Americans with behavioral health problems uninsured or underinsured.

In the past, nearly one in five individuals purchasing insurance didn’t have access to mental health services. And nearly one in three had no coverage for substance abuse services.

It was legal for insurance plans to treat these disorders differently than medical and surgical needs.

But thanks to two historic laws, we’re closing these gaps in coverage.

The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act ensures that mental health benefits provided by group health plans are on par with other physical health benefits.

And the Affordable Care Act helps ensure that Americans have access to affordable coverage, and that plans in the Marketplace cover behavioral health.

Together, these laws are expanding behavioral health benefits and federal parity protections to more than 62 million Americans.

We’re already seeing the results:

  • Because of the Affordable Care Act, 17 million children can no longer be denied insurance because of a preexisting condition, like depression or bi-polar disorder.
  • More than 3.1 million young people from ages 19 to 25 have gotten coverage because they can now stay on their parents’ insurance plans. This is a critical age when behavioral health issues are likely to emerge.
  • And more than 71 million Americans can now get free preventive services, including screenings for alcohol abuse and depression, as well as behavioral assessments for children.

Yesterday Mayor James, Mayor Holland and I met with local community leaders to talk about the new Health Insurance Marketplace and how people can start enrolling next month for coverage which begins as soon as January 1st.

These new benefits can help so many people—including those with mental illness or addiction who have been locked out of the system for so long they’ve given up hope.

We need your help to let them know that affordable coverage is within reach.

You can visit healthcare.gov for more information to share with your families, friends, and co-workers. For Spanish speakers, it’s CuidadoDeSalud.gov.

But reducing barriers in the health care system isn’t enough to turn the tide when it comes to mental health.

Misperceptions and negative beliefs about mental illnesses cause many Americans to fear, avoid, or discriminate against individuals with mental illnesses and addictions.

Too many Americans don’t have basic information to recognize signs of mental illness in their family members, friends and neighbors – or even in themselves.

We can’t just change laws and policies.

We also need to change hearts and minds. We need to break down social barriers. We need to help people understand that recovery is possible and it is OK to ask for help.

People will only benefit from all the progress we’ve made if they aren’t afraid to get help. In fact, they should feel as comfortable seeking treatment for behavioral health as they do for other medical needs, like cancer or diabetes.

That will only happen when Americans can talk about openly and honestly about mental illness without the fear of being judged.

All of us here today – community leaders, teachers, health providers, people in recovery, parents, youth, and friends – have a role to play to help make this happen.

One of the best ways to do that is by increasing understanding about mental illness and addiction.

That’s why President Obama put forth an ambitious agenda to make it easier for young people, adults, and families struggling with mental health problems to seek help and support.

His budget makes a $130 million investment in programs that can make a difference, including training more than 5,000 mental health professionals. It also invests in helping teachers, law enforcement and health agencies identify signs of mental health problems in young people and refer them to treatment.

President Obama also asked Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and me to start a national conversation on mental health this year.

Through community conversations like this one, public and private partnerships, and social media, we are increasing awareness about mental health and recovery. We are reducing the fear, shame, and misperceptions that often prevent people from getting help.

And that’s why you are all here today.

The conversations you have will help let more people know that prevention works, treatment is effective, and recovery is real. The proof is in the tens of millions of Americans with behavioral health conditions who live healthy, productive lives.

I hope that each of you will take those messages home with you to your family, friends and colleagues. If you want to learn more, you can visit the website mentalhealth.gov. It’s a great place to find help or get answers to questions. It also showcases the personal stories of people who have overcome mental health challenges.

We all know people who are facing behavioral health problems right now.

Rather than ignoring them, we can encourage them to find the help they need. As they feel safe to talk about their experiences, they will probably find friends and neighbors who have also gotten help. And their examples may even inspire others to seek help as well.

Changing the conversation on mental health can save lives.

And it can begin with you today.

Thank you.