WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama said Monday that he wants to end the stigma of mental illness and enrolled the star power of actors Bradley Cooper and Glenn Close at a White House conference organized in response to the December shootings at a Connecticut elementary school.
The event was designed to encourage those struggling with mental illness to seek treatment, although some attendees noted the government needs to provide more resources to meet that goal.
Despite its origins, there was a notable lack of discussion of gun violence at the conference. The president never mentioned the matter as he opened the gathering from the East Room, instead stressing that he wants to make it clear that the majority of the mentally ill are not violent. He said his main goal in hosting the conference is "bringing mental illness out of the shadows" and encouraging those suffering to get help, particularly veterans and young people.
"We whisper about mental health issues and avoid asking too many questions," the president said. "The brain is a body part, too. We just know less about it. And there should be no shame in discussing or seeking help for treatable illnesses that affect too many people that we love. We've got to get rid of that embarrassment. We've got to get rid of that stigma."
The conference comes after Obama's effort to pass gun control, including more background checks for purchases and a ban on assault weapon sales, was voted down in the Senate. The need to improve the country's mental health care system is something all sides of the gun debate, including the National Rifle Association, have advocated.
"It's really something that uniquely can bring our country together, whether the issue is health care, gun control, media violence, however they want to characterize it," said Gordon Smith, a former Republican senator from Oregon whose son, Garrett, suffered from depression and committed suicide in 1998 a few days after his 13th birthday. Smith now heads the National Association of Broadcasters, which announced as part of the conference a new campaign to reduce negative perceptions of mental illness through television and radio ads and social media.
Smith's passing mention of guns, during a panel discussion, was the only mention of the issue in the daylong convention that came out of Obama's executive orders following the shooting at Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School.
There's been little publicly disclosed about the mental health of Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza, although it's been documented that other gunmen involved in mass shootings suffered from mental illness. Federal law bans certain mentally ill people from purchasing firearms, but the background check system is woefully incomplete and Obama is trying to get more mental health records included.
The conference featured around 150 invited attendees including mental health advocates and patients, educators, health care providers, faith leaders, lawmakers and local government officials from across the country. The two celebrities seemed impressed to be at the White House, with Close snapping a photo of Obama on her Iphone and Cooper gushing, "Wow," as he began to speak as part of the closing remarks with Vice President Biden.
Cooper has been promoting mental health awareness since his Oscar-nominated leading role as a man with bipolar disorder in last year's "Silver Linings Playbook."
"I'm sort of here by accident. It's not that I didn't know about mental illness. I think it's just that I just didn't see it as a part of my life," Cooper said. But he said since his performance, he learned people around him have been suffering in silence, including a close friend who is bipolar. "I want to be part of the solution," he said to applause.
Close's experience is more personal. Her sister, Jessie, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 51 and Jessie's son, Calen, spent two years in a psychiatric hospital with schizoaffective disorder. In 2009, Close's family battles led her to help start a non-profit called Bring Change 2 Mind, which produces public service announcements to fight the stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness.
"The truth is the stigma has hardly budged," Close said during a panel discussion on how to address negative attitudes moderated by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. Close referred to studies showing the public doesn't want to have those with mental illness as neighbors, supervising them at work or taking care of their children and believe they are violent.
The conference comes after public spending on mental health services has been slashed across the country in recent years, driven by the recession and in some cases a zeal to shrink government. That has led to the closure and cutbacks at state-run psychiatric hospitals and cuts to services for the poor and people in the criminal justice system.