A Mental Health Commitment in Washington

Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD


July 24, 2013

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Hello. I'm Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman from Columbia University, talking to you today for Medscape.

I'd like to comment on an event that I had the privilege of attending on June 3, at the invitation of the President, the Vice President, and the administration to participate in a White House conference on mental health. It was a day-long event that the President, Vice President, Secretary of Health and Human Services Sebelius, some celebrities such as Glenn Close and Bradley Cooper, and a number of other individuals from various stakeholder groups in the area of mental illness participated in.

The purpose of the event was to follow up on Vice President Biden's efforts to address the issue of mental health care. The administration had been concerned about this to begin with, but their concern was elevated in urgency as well as importance by the tragic and violent incidents that appeared to involve persons who may have suffered from mental illness, including such massacres and tragedies as the Newtown, Connecticut, shooting with Adam Lanza. Prior to that, another such incident was the shooting in Aurora, Colorado, and before that, the shooting in Tucson, Arizona, by [Jared] Loughner. We have seen these things happen all too often over the years.

In any event, the question is: How can mental health care be improved and how can we provide access to care to more individuals sooner? How can we, in this context, reduce the morbidity of the illness, improve quality of life, and significantly reduce the potential for any complications to occur, such as violent incidents?

Approximately 200 people attended the event. It began in the West Wing of the White House where the President addressed the attendees, and then a panel discussion was led by Secretary Sebelius. Among the panelists was former Senator Gordon Smith from Oregon, who unfortunately suffered the loss of his teenage son to suicide when he was in the Senate. Interestingly, Senator Smith had recently been selected to become the next president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters. I personally felt that this was a very positive development in that the television networks and media might, as a result of this appointment, have a greater sensitivity and level of awareness about the importance of constructive communication regarding mental illness.

Subsequently, there was a series of breakout groups that we participated in with other attendees, who ranged from individuals in the mental health care profession (those from different professional organizations such as the American Psychological Association, social workers, and nurses) to individuals that represented patient organizations or who may have had personal experience with mental illness in their families.

One celebrity that I mentioned, Glenn Close, had a personal experience in her own family. Her sister has manic depressive illness and her nephew has schizoaffective disorder. Glenn started an organization called Bring Change 2 Mind to try to change public perception and reduce stigma among the public towards mental illness.

Bradley Cooper, on the other hand, had the experience of being the lead actor in a very good movie called Silver Linings Playbook, which was released last year and was nominated for Academy Awards. His costar, Jennifer Lawrence, won for Best Actress. It is a film about a family suffering from mental illness. Bradley Cooper played the son, who suffers from bipolar disorder and was in the hospital, committed involuntarily, because he became disruptive and violent in the context of his manic symptoms. His father, played by Robert De Niro, suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. The Cooper character meets Jennifer Lawrence's character, who has just survived a traumatic relationship in which she lost her husband and was suffering some emotional distress. It was a very affecting movie about how this family and this group of individuals had these mental disorders -- as people in everyday life do -- and how they dealt with them. Through their collective efforts and the assistance of mental health care professionals, Cooper's character overcame the challenges to redirect his life in a positive way.

In the course of making this movie, Bradley Cooper had become sensitized to the importance of mental illness and realized that people in his own lifetime suffer from this. He hadn't quite understood what that meant before, but he is now showing interest in how he could contribute to improving public awareness.


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