NASW CEO Betsy Clark, and other mental health and disability rights advocates, met at the White House on Wednesday to provide input for Vice President Biden’s Task Force on Gun Control and Violence. The meeting was led by Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Kathleen Sebelius, and included Attorney General Eric Holder, Pam Hyde from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), and David Esquith from the Office of Safe and Healthy Students in the Department of Education.
In addition to NASW, advocates included the leaders of the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the Child Mind Institute, the National Council for Behavioral Health, County Behavioral Health and Developmental Disability Directors, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and Mental Health America. Tim Shriver, the CEO of the Special Olympics, and former Congressman Patrick Kennedy (RI) also were present.
Issues emphasized included the need for mental health parity, increased wrap-around services for persons with mental health issues living in the community, and additional school social workers and school counselors. Concern was expressed about the tendency to link mental illness and violence and about the further stimatizing of persons who have a psychiatric diagnosis. A particular issue was the suggestion previously made by some officials about establishing a registry or database of people who have a mental illness. NASW expressed the need for confidentiality, privacy rights, and the discrimination that would follow if such a registry developed.
Attorney General Holder declared that the meeting had been “eye-opening” for him and noted that this was only the first of what would be a series of meetings and conversations with the mental health community. Their goal is to put together a packet of initiatives and action items for President Obama by the end of January.
One suggestion from the group was for President Obama to have a national conversation with America about mental health issues and, by using his position and becoming a champion, to help dispell the stigma and myths surrounding mental illness. Another approach centered on safety in our schools. It was suggested that students themselves be engaged as advocates and advisors, that they be asked what can and should be done. Fully enacting mental health parity in the Affordable Care Act was a joint suggestion from all the groups present.
NASW had previously written to President Obama regarding the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut.