WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Barack Obama will highlight the issues faced by Americans with mental health problems at a White House conference on Monday, following his promise to start a “national conversation” on the subject after the shooting deaths of 20 children and six adults at a school last year.
The massacre at the elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut on Dec. 14 raised awareness of mental issues, although little is known about the state of mind of the shooter, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, who committed suicide.
Lanza, who has been described as socially awkward and reclusive, also killed his mother.
“Without us knowing if and what Adam Lanza had, we certainly know that something bad was going on, and that Adam Lanza wasn’t getting the attention that he needed,” said Harold Koplewicz, president of the Child Mind Institute, a psychiatric treatment and research center in New York City.
The conference at the White House is one of the less controversial milestones for Obama on his politically tough to-do list to address gun violence in America.
His proposals for new restrictions on guns have stalled in Congress, foiled by a tough fight from the powerful National Rifle Association and other groups defending Americans’ constitutional rights to own guns.
But there are signs of bipartisan interest in Congress in taking steps to deal with the lack of access for mental health services and a lack of trained professionals in the field, said Koplewicz, whose opinions have been sought out by Republicans on Capitol Hill.
“Sometimes it takes these terrible national tragedies that capture us, that hit us in the pit of our stomach, and we say to ourselves: ‘It’s a wake-up call. Enough. We just have to do something,’” said Koplewicz, who plans to attend the White House conference.
Monday’s event recalls a similar Clinton White House conference held in 1999 after a mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado raised concerns about mental health issues.
Koplewicz was at that event too. But he said this time around, awareness efforts will be bolstered by the Affordable Care Act, which will dramatically expand insurance coverage for treatment of mental illnesses, particularly for children.
ONE IN FIVE KIDS
Mental illness is common in America. As many as one in five children suffer from a disorder, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention has said.
People with mental illnesses statistically are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators, and the vast majority of gun violence in America is not linked to people with mental problems.
Treatment for mental illness is most effective when started early, but the White House has said less than half of children with mental problems receive treatment.
At the Monday event, Obama will launch a new website with information about mental illness and treatment, and will announce that the Department of Veterans Affairs will hold mental health summits at its 151 health care centers across the country in coming weeks.
The White House conference will feature several of Obama’s cabinet members, Hollywood stars Glenn Close and Bradley Cooper, as well as advocates for mental health issues, practitioners, teachers, faith leaders and representatives from the private sector.