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"Never Be Afraid to Ask 'Are You Alright?'"

Thomas E. Price, M.D.
SAMHSA’s National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day 2017
May 4, 2017
Washington, D.C.

Today, approximately 60 percent of adults and 50 percent of adolescents with mental illness fail to get the treatment and services they need. This is a tragedy that none of us should be willing to tolerate. No American should suffer in silence or shame. They need to know they are not alone and that seeking help is a sign of strength not weakness.

Remarks as Prepared for Delivery

Thank you for that kind introduction, Kana [Enomoto]. Thanks to all of you for being here tonight for this important event to help shine the nation’s spotlight on children’s mental health. And thank you for all that you do – day in and day out – to help our fellow Americans who are struggling with mental illness or drug addiction.

It’s an honor to join you all here this evening. But I have to admit, it’s also a little intimidating. Part of my job tonight is to give an award to Michael Phelps and Allison Schmitt, two of the most decorated athletes in human history.

When a person has earned his or her way into one of the most prestigious award ceremonies in the world, it would be easy to think that every other award ceremony pales in comparison – almost like a Nobel prize-winning physicist receiving a first-place ribbon at the grade school science fair.

But even though tonight’s award isn’t gold, silver or bronze, I think Michael and Allison will find it to be just as valuable, because they understand and appreciate the vital importance of mental health in our country and in our communities today.

You’ve heard a lot tonight about the inseparability of physical health and mental health.

This is more than just a framework to help us think clearly about health and wellness – it is an undeniable fact of the human condition that applies even to those, like Michael and Allison, with superhuman abilities.

We tend to think of Olympic athletes in terms of their physical attributes – those God-given anatomical gifts that every Olympian has honed and strengthened from a young age: the quickness of the sprinter, the raw power of the wrestler, the grace of the gymnast, the speed of the swimmer.

But the success of an athlete is determined less by the strength of her body than by the resilience of her mind and the tenacity of her spirit.

Even for the most gifted athletes, the health of the body depends on the health of the mind. There is no way to separate the two.

Michael and Allison are living proof of this fact. Both were born with athletic abilities that 99 percent of humanity can only dream of possessing. Combined with a lifetime of training and their boundless will to succeed, these natural physical gifts helped them become two of the greatest swimmers on the planet.

But at the very same moment that the world was marveling at their extraordinary athletic feats, Michael and Allison were privately battling depression – an illness that jeopardized not just their performance in the water, but their ability to live healthy, flourishing lives.

Everyone here knows how this story ends. In 2016, Michael and Allison led Team USA to an incredible performance in Rio and a grand total of 33 medals.

Their triumphs last summer were more than just the natural next steps of two incredible careers. They are a testament to the truth that what makes an athlete – what makes all of us – is our mental health.

Before tonight, I had never met Michael Phelps or Allison Schmitt. But I know about their battles with depression because they had the courage and the confidence to tell their stories to the world.

This is why we’re honoring them here tonight.

Michael and Allison’s stories are so important to hear because they prove that mental illness impacts people of all backgrounds and from all walks of life. Even those who appear to have it all – supportive friends, a loving family, and professional success – can struggle to see the value and purpose in their lives. Even our national heroes can feel isolated and alone.

This is a message that America needs to hear. Today, approximately 60 percent of adults and 50 percent of adolescents with mental illness fail to get the treatment and services they need. This is a tragedy that none of us should be willing to tolerate.

No American should suffer in silence or shame. They need to know they are not alone and that seeking help is a sign of strength not weakness.

Thanks to the efforts of Michael and Allison – and everyone in this room tonight – we are beginning to make progress in this fight.

But there is much more to do, especially for our young people who have seen an increased rate of major depressive episodes in recent years.

New data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health released today tells us that adolescents who have diabetes or asthma, as well as those who are overweight or obese, are more likely than their peers to experience a major depressive episode.

This underscores the need to make sure we’re providing healthcare to our children that takes into account both their physical and mental health needs.

Three of my top priorities as Secretary are serious mental illness, childhood obesity, and combating the scourge of drug addiction and substance abuse.

These three interrelated problems are some of the most pressing challenges facing our nation today.

We can solve them, but it’s going to require public and private collaboration, fresh thinking, bold action, and a commitment to prioritizing evidence-based solutions. 

Much of this effort is already underway within the government and many of the organizations represented here tonight.

And we have also seen a renewed commitment from President Trump, who has assembled a presidential commission to look at what the federal government can do better to tackle the opioid crisis. President Trump has also begun the process of appointing an assistant secretary of mental health – a brand new position within HHS that will help elevate the importance of mental health and substance abuse in our government. 

But overcoming these challenges can’t be done by one person or one government agency alone.

We must work together and have the courage, like Michael and Allison, to speak out about mental illness.

In both our personal and professional lives, we must not wait for our colleagues, neighbors or loved ones who are quietly struggling with mental illness or substance abuse to come to us – we must go to them, and never be afraid to ask the simple question: “Are you alright?”

Sometimes, that’s all it takes to save a life.

I commit to doing my part, as Secretary of HHS, as a physician, and as a member of my community, to meet this challenge, and I invite all of you to join me in your own neighborhoods and communities across this great land.

Thank you, and may God bless you and the work you do.

And now, it is my distinct honor to present the 2017 SAMHSA Special Recognition Awards to Olympic and mental health champions Michael Phelps and Allison Schmitt.

Content created by Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs (ASPA)
Content last reviewed on May 4, 2017