Actor Bradley Cooper arrives for the Mental Health Conference on Monday. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
Vice President Joe Biden closed out a mental health conference at the White House Monday afternoon with a message of support to those affected by mental illness.
"Let's use this moment to send a message to tens of millions of Americans, especially the young people and parents of young people all over this country," Biden said during remarks delivered in the White House's South Court Auditorium. "There's nothing, nothing to be ashamed of if you're struggling with mental issues. ... It's OK to talk about it, it's OK to ask for help, it's OK to acknowledge that it's frightening."
Monday's conference at the White House, which featured remarks from President Barack Obama, two panel discussions with mental health experts and advocates, government officials and celebrity guests, was designed to help reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. It kicked off the president's plan to hold a national conversation about gun violence following the deadly Dec. 14 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Obama's effort to pressure Congress to pass gun reform measures stalled in mid-April when the Democratic-controlled Senate failed to support an expansion of background checks on gun purchases.
The president announced Monday that the Department of Veterans Affairs will direct 151 of its health care centers to conduct mental health summits July 1 through Sept. 15. The summits, which will include partnerships with local community organizations, will focus on support for veterans and their families, and increase awareness about available mental health programs.
And Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced a new website, mentalhealth.gov, which she described as a "one-stop shop" for mental health support and a place where visitors can read success stories from individuals with mental illness.
Biden was introduced Monday by actor Bradley Cooper, who played a character with bipolar disorder in "Silver Linings Playbook." Cooper said he first spoke with Biden, who reached out to him in February about mental illness stigmas. "I want to help. I want to do something about it. I want to be part of the solution," Cooper said. He added that "helping people understand that they're not alone ... that treatment works" is a way to help reduce the stigma.
Obama's opening remarks Monday morning included his disbelief about the number of "very personal" medical ads shown on television while mental health remains a taboo subject.
"You see commercials on TV about a whole array of physical health issues—some of them very personal," Obama said, drawing laughter. "And yet, we whisper about mental health issues and avoid asking too many questions. ... 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. Too many Americans who struggle with mental health illnesses are still suffering in silence rather than seeking help."
Obama said that each year "1 in 5 adults experience mental illness" and noted that he and first lady Michelle Obama know people who have battled severe depression.
"Struggling with a mental illness or caring for someone who does can be isolating," Obama said.
The conference included a panel on negative attitudes toward mental illness moderated by Sebelius and a panel on mental health outreach moderated by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, which included a representative from MTV and other messaging experts.
Actress Glenn Close participated in the first panel. Close co-founded a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending the stigma associated with mental illness after observing how it affected her sister and son.
She said she is lucky her sister is alive. She "fell through the cracks of our family," Close said.
Moderator Sebelius noted the stigmas in society at large that remain regarding mental illness.
"Mental health needs to be an issue we can talk about openly and freely without the fear of being judged or penalized," Sebelius said, noting that those suffering from mental illness continue to be outcast by society.
Other participants included former Republican Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon, whose son committed suicide. Smith currently serves as president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters, which is developing a national campaign to increase public awareness of mental health. Audience members who spoke at Monday's first panel included former Democratic Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, who has bipolar disorder, and Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.
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- Kathleen Sebelius