June 3 marked the first White House Conference on Mental Health in 14 years. President Obama opened the event by describing how many people “suffer in silence” rather than seeking help:
We see it in the veterans who come home from the battlefield with invisible wounds of war, but who feel like seeking treatment is somehow a sign of weakness – when, in fact, it’s a sign of strength.
We see it in the parents who would do anything for their kids, but who often fight their mental health battle alone – afraid that reaching out would invite judgment or reflect badly on them.
And we see it in tragedies that we have the power to prevent.
With these remarks, the President launched the National Dialogue on Mental Health, bringing together 200 mental health experts, a dozen members of Congress, and celebrities like Glenn Close and Bradley Cooper to start a national conversation about youth and mental health. The White House has also launched a website, mentalhealth.gov , with its tag line “Let’s talk about it.”
Noting that less than 40 percent of people with mental disorders seek treatment, the President stressed the need to do a better job recognizing mental health issues, especially in children. Acknowledging that we must ensure that treatment is available, the President described how the Affordable Care Act will expand mental health care to 60 million more Americans, and he detailed new investments to increase the mental health workforce. He also noted how new investments in science, including the BRAIN initiative, should bring better treatments for those who need them.
It’s hard not to draw a parallel to the June 1999 White House conference, which was precipitated by the school shootings in Littleton, Colorado six weeks earlier. Hosted by Tipper Gore and President Clinton, the focus was on youth mental health and reducing stigma. Fourteen years later, the conversation leaders are different, but the issues are much the same. Again we are in the wake of a school shooting; again we turn our attention to mental health in youth; and again we are discussing how to overcome negative attitudes toward those with mental disorders. But this begs the question: why are we still having the same conversation about the same issues in mental health? How do we refocus this discussion?
First of all, much has changed in the past 14 years that should be enriching our dialogue: the era of genomics has transformed biomedical science; the revolution in mobile technology reaches countless adolescents and holds potential as an avenue to change behaviors; and the advent of health care reform will help more people get the treatment they need. All of these have the promise to transform mental health care and mental health research.
Second, we need not only a national dialogue but a national action plan. “Let’s talk about it” is a good place to start, but for a 19-year-old in the grip of a psychotic episode or a 16-year-old on the path to serious mental illness, we urgently need an action plan to alter the course of their illness. This year, the 100,000 young Americans who will have a first episode of psychosis will join over two million adults with schizophrenia. The majority of people with mental illness delay seeking care, which is especially serious for people with psychotic disorders. In the United States, individuals with psychosis go untreated for, on average, 110 weeks.1 Among other serious consequences, untreated psychosis poses an increased risk for substance use and suicide, both of which contribute to the elevated mortality associated with these disorders. Our best hope of reducing mortality from serious mental disorders will come from realizing that just like other medical illnesses, we need to diagnose and preempt the illness before the symptoms become manifest. At the White House conference, Vice President Biden spoke to this point directly, stressing that we must intervene earlier, as we do today for cancer and heart disease.
Recognizing this call to action, NIMH is preparing for a surge of research focused on predicting and preventing serious mental illness. New initiatives will seek to change the treatment paradigm from one of treating chronic illness to one of preempting the illness long before symptoms emerge. We have two landmark NIMH studies to build upon: The North American Prodrome Longitudinal Study (NAPLS) is a consortium of clinical research centers studying ways to identify individuals earlier who are at risk for an initial psychotic episode. Through NAPLS, we have the opportunity to create a toolkit to improve prediction of psychosis using biosignatures and neurocognitive testing. The Recovery After an Initial Schizophrenia Episode (RAISE) project is a large-scale research effort to explore whether using early and aggressive treatment will reduce the symptoms for individuals who have already had a psychotic episode and prevent the subsequent gradual deterioration of functioning. RAISE will be expanded with the aim to reduce the duration of untreated psychosis by linking community mental health care to primary care and school mental health resources.
We must make sure that the next White House conference on mental health is a celebration of progress. Science is the path on which progress is made. Investing in programs focused on early diagnosis are the best hope for creating more precise diagnostics and more effective preventive interventions to ensure better outcomes. Let’s start writing a new chapter in the chronicle on mental health. Our nation’s youth deserve to be part of a better story.
1 Marshall M, Lewis S, Lockwood A, Drake R, Jones P, Croudace T. Association between duration of untreated psychosis and outcome in cohorts of first-episode patients . Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2005 Sep 62:975-983.