- The Washington Times - Monday, June 3, 2013

Sidestepping the issue of gun violence, President Obama opened a conference on mental health at the White House on Monday by calling for a national effort to diagnose and treat mental illness earlier in children and offer more services for adults.

“The main goal of this conference is not to start a conversation,” Mr. Obama said. “Instead, it’s about elevating that conversation to a national level, and bringing mental illness out of the shadows.”

After a troubled young gunman killed 20 first-graders and six educators in December in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the president proposed an overhaul of the nation’s mental health system as part of the administration’s push for gun control and reducing gun violence. But advocacy groups have objected to linking gun violence and mental illness, and Mr. Obama was careful in his remarks Monday not to discuss gun issues.

Instead, Mr. Obama talked about the importance of eliminating the stigma of mental illness.

“We see it in the tragedies that we have the power to prevent,” Mr. Obama said. “I want to be absolutely clear. The overwhelming majority of people who suffer from mental illnesses are not violent, they will never pose a threat to themselves or others. And there are a whole lot of violent people with no diagnosable mental health issues.”

He added, “But we also know that most suicides each year involve someone with a mental health or substance-abuse disorder. And in some cases, when a condition goes untreated, it can lead to tragedy on a larger scale.”

Vice President Joseph R. Biden mentioned gun violence only once in his extended remarks to the gathering. Referring to a $130 million administration proposal to help teachers to recognize signs of mental illness, Mr. Biden said, “Admittedly, it came out of the whole tragedy in Newtown.”

But White House press secretary Jay Carney was willing to go where the president and vice president weren’t, saying the mental health conference was part of the administration’s overall effort to reduce gun violence.

“Mental health is an important issue that is often stigmatized,” Mr. Carney said. “It is a component of our gun violence problem. That is why this conference was a piece of the executive action” by the president to reduce gun violence.

The administration held the daylong conference with local and state officials, faith leaders, educators and mental health advocates to raise awareness and built support for better treatment. There were no new spending proposals initiated Monday, although the president said mental health services will be expanding under the president’s new health care law, including depression screening for adults.

In addition to addressing violence, the White House’s efforts are also aimed at improving treatment for veterans who suffer from mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Mr. Obama announced that the Department of Veterans Affairs will launch more than 150 community “summits” to promote services for veterans struggling with mental health issues.

“For many people who suffer from mental illness, recovery can be challenging,” Mr. Obama said. “What gives so many of our friends and loved ones strength is the knowledge that you’re not alone.”

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