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President Obama launched a national campaign this week to focus public attention on mental health. He made that effort part of two other agendas: gun control and support for veterans.
The President placed the White House conference in this larger context, so that mental health does not become a distraction from the gun-control issue — and so that the campaign will not further stigmatize people with mental-health issues and cognitive dysfunctions.
The nation must not criminalize mental health in an attempt to “fix” it, or as a response to gun violence. The Newtown tragedy did not occur because the gunman may have been at the low end of the autism scale.
It happened because an unstable, deeply unhappy young man had access to guns and ammunition magazines that no civilian should be allowed to buy. The street murders that plague Toledo, Detroit, and Chicago, and the killings of loved ones by loved ones that plague America, cannot be addressed without comprehensive national gun control.
But there is also no question that the United States needs to invest in its patchwork mental health care system. And there is no question that Americans’ attitudes need to change.
An estimated 45 million Americans suffer from illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The latter is on the rise among our veterans because of the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Pollsters, sociologists, mental-health professionals, and patients agree that mental illness is still stigmatized. Treatment for depression is not something spoken of as openly as, say, treatment for diabetes.
At the conference, President Obama said: “We know that recovery is possible, we know help is available, and yet, as a society, we often think about mental health differently than other forms of health … there should be no shame in discussing or seeking help for treatable illnesses that affect too many people that we love.”
He added that “what helps more than anything, what gives so many of our friends and loved ones strength, is the knowledge that you are not alone.”