WASHINGTON — The Veterans Affairs Department is improving access for veterans to mental health services, President Barack Obama said Tuesday in remarks that opened the National Conference on Mental Health.
Obama and Vice President Joe Biden are hosting the conference at the White House as part of the administration’s effort to increase understanding of and awareness about mental health and reduce the associated stigma.
Obama delivered opening remarks, and Biden will deliver closing remarks at the conference later Tuesday.
“We’re … doing more to support our troops and our veterans who are suffering from things like traumatic brain injury or PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder,” the president told the audience. “Today, we lose 22 veterans a day to suicide — 22. We’ve got to do a better job … of preventing these all-too-often silent tragedies. That’s why we’ve poured an enormous amount of resources into high-quality care and better treatment for our troops.”
In response to a presidential executive order, VA has hired 1,600 mental health providers and more than 300 peer-to-peer veteran specialists, according to a White House statement.
The department also has enhanced the capacity of its crisis line by 50 percent and established 24 pilot projects in nine states where VA is partnering with community mental-health providers to help veterans more quickly access mental health services, the statement said.
Joining the president on stage at the conference were Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, Health and Human Services Secretary
Kathleen Sebelius and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, among others.
The president said VA is directing 151 of its health care centers nationwide to conduct mental health summits with community partners, which include local government officials, community-based organizations and veteran service organizations.
The summits will be held from July 1 through Sept. 15 and will identify and link community-based resources to support the mental
health needs of veterans and their families and increase awareness of VA programs and services, he explained.
“They’re going to hold more than 150 summits like this one in communities all across the country so that every one of our service members and veterans understand (that) just like you take care of yourselves and each other on the battlefield, you’ve got to do the same off the battlefield,” Obama said. “That’s part of being strong.”
Conference attendees are people from across the country — mental health advocates, educators, veterans, health care providers, faith leaders, members of Congress, representatives from local governments and individuals who have struggled with mental health problems.
Today, they are discussing how they can work together to reduce
stigma and help millions of Americans struggling with mental health problems recognize the importance of reaching out for assistance. Obama said there should be no shame in discussing or seeking help for treatable illnesses that affect too many people.
“We see it in veterans who come home from the battlefield with the invisible wounds of war, but who feel somehow that seeking treatment is a sign of weakness when, in fact, it’s a sign of strength,” he added.
As part of the effort, the administration today launched http://mentalhealth.gov, a consumer-friendly website with tools that help users with the basics of mental health and the signs of mental illness, and show them how to talk about mental health and how to get help. The website includes a series of videos featuring celebrities and other Americans whose lives have been touched by mental illness.
In November 2011, VA launched an award-winning, national public awareness campaign called “Make the Connection,” which is aimed at reducing the stigma associated with seeking mental health care and telling veterans, their families, friends and members of their communities about VA resources.
“We wanted to bring together folks who’ve suffered from mental illness and families who supported them,” the president said at Tuesday’s conference. “We wanted to bring together advocates and educators, faith leaders, veterans, local officials — all of you have shown an extraordinary commitment to what is a critical goal, and that is to make sure that people aren’t suffering in silence.”