President Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden will host a mental-health conference at the White House on Monday but, after an outcry from advocacy groups, the administration is no longer billing the meeting as part of its effort to enact gun control legislation.
Just two weeks ago, the White House described the conference as part of Mr. Obama’s plan to reduce violence in the wake of December’s Sandy Hook school massacre in Newtown, Conn. But on Friday, when White House deputy press secretary Joshua Earnest previewed the meeting for reporters, he never mentioned the words “gun violence.”
Instead, Mr. Earnest said the conference will address “how we can all work together to reduce stigma and help the millions of Americans struggling with mental health problems recognize the importance of reaching out for assistance.”
The meeting will include state and local officials, mental-health advocates, educators, health care providers, faith leaders and people who suffer from mental illnesses.
The head of a mental-health advocacy group who will attend the conference said the administration is making a conscious effort to downplay possible links between mental illness and gun violence.
“I think it’s been decoupled, the gun violence phenomenon that has received so much attention post-Sandy Hook,” said Wayne Lindstrom, CEO of Mental Health America, a nonprofit group based in Alexandria. He said mental-health advocates have discouraged the administration from drawing a link.
“The literature is pretty clear that those with mental illnesses are much more likely to be victims of violence than they are to perpetuate it,” Mr. Lindstrom said. “Typically, if somebody who’s mentally ill is to engage in violent behavior, it’s usually because they have not been treated and there’s a [combination with] an addiction.”
When he and other mental-health advocates met with Mr. Biden’s gun violence task force last winter, Mr. Lindstrom said, “one of our messages was that we didn’t need another presidential commission or task force to study these issues. What we really advocated for is that the president use his position, the bully pulpit, to help bring mental illness out of the shadows.”
It’s not clear how the downplaying of mental-health issues in the context of gun violence might affect the administration’s efforts to renew gun control legislation. When the National Rifle Association and others lobbied against gun control legislation this spring, NRA Executive Director Wayne LaPierre said the administration should focus instead on enforcing current gun laws and rebuilding a “broken mental-health system.”
The Senate rejected a bill in April that would have expanded background checks for gun purchases, but the administration and its gun control allies are vowing to bring up another bill.
Among the 23 executive orders he signed in January to combat gun violence, the president made the link between gun violence and mental illness in several ways. He issued an order to clarify that the Affordable Care Act does not prohibit doctors asking their patients about guns in their homes, and instructed health-care providers that no federal law prohibits them from reporting threats of violence to law enforcement authorities.
At the time, the president also directed Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Education Secretary Arne Duncan to convene a “national dialogue” on mental health, and he made a commitment to finalizing mental health parity regulations.
States have been enacting legislation in response to gun violence that addresses mental-health solutions. In Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a law in May that makes it easier to commit a person against their will when they pose a potential danger by taking into account a person’s history of mental health and input from family and friends. The law was a response to a 2012 incident in which a disturbed man with a gun killed five people in Seattle.