White House Conference on Mental Health

Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release June 7, 1999


Blackburn Auditorium
Howard University Washington. D.C.

2:32 P.M. EDT

MRS. CLINTON: Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. If I had any voice I would break into “You are the Sunshine of My Life,” and dedicate it to Tipper. (Laughter.) But I’m delighted to be here, and so pleased not only to see this packed room with standing room only, but to know that nearly 6,000 sites around the country are sharing in this firsthand.

This is an historic conference, but it is more than that; it’s a real signal to our nation that we must do whatever it takes not only to remove the stigma from mental illness, but to begin treating mental illness as the illness it is on a parity with other illnesses. And we have to understand more about the progress that has been made scientifically that has really led us to this point.

I don’t believe that we could have had such a conference even 10 years ago, and I know we couldn’t have had such a conference 25 or 30 years ago, when I was a young law student working at the Child Study Center at the Yale University and taking classes at the Med School and working at the Yale New Haven Hospital, and very interested in the intersection of mental illness and the law and in the development of children and other issues that we were only then just beginning to address. And we didn’t have a lot of evidence to back up what we needed to know or how we should proceed with the treatment of a lot of the problems that we saw.

Well, today we know a lot more. And it is really our obligation and responsibility, therefore, to begin to act on that scientific knowledge. And I’m very pleased to be talking with a distinguished group of panelists about the science of mental health and mental illness.

We’re happy to have with us Dr. Steven Hyman. He is a distinguished scientist who directs the National Institute of Mental Health, one of the institutes of the National Institutes of Health. And I want to start with Doctor Hyman.
Dr. Hyman, you have been dealing with some very difficult diseases that affect millions of people. We’ve already heard several mentioned—clinical depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia. What progress have we made in learning about these diseases in the last few years so that we understand them more scientifically, and, therefore, have a better idea of what to do about them?

DR. HYMAN: Well, Mrs. Clinton, the first thing that we’ve recognized is that the numbers are indeed enormous. More than 19 million Americans suffer from depression. More than 2 million children. More than 2 million Americans have schizophrenia. And the World Bank and the World Health Organization have recognized that depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, including the United States.

We have also learned some very important facts about these illnesses, and if I can just encapsulate them briefly, it’s that these are real illnesses of a real organ—the brain. Just like coronary artery disease is a disease of a real organ—the heart. We can make diagnoses, and these diseases are treatable.

In addition, we’ve learned that these diseases should be treated just like general medical disorders. If you have heart disease you would get not only medication, but also rehabilitation, dietary counseling, stress reduction. So it is with a mental illness. We’ve heard a lot already today about medication, but people need to get their medication in the context of appropriate psychotherapies and other psycho-social treatments. (Applause.)

MRS. CLINTON: So how then has these scientific discoveries changed the way that we as a society deal with mental illness? And following up on what you said, if we now know—if you as experts and practitioners know that we should treat mental illness as real and as treatable, as a disease of a bodily part, namely the brain, what does that mean for the kind of response that we should be looking to in society?

DR. HYMAN: You know, sometimes people think of science as something cold, but actually it has been an enormously liberating force for families and for people with mental illness. Not two decades ago, people were taught that dread diseases like autism or schizophrenia were due to some subtle character flaw in mothers. This idea, unfortunately, has been perpetuated by ignorance far too often. And, indeed, these ideas didn’t help with treatments. And what they did do is they demoralized families who ultimately had to take care of these poor sick children.

So science has shown us some alternative ideas. For example, it’s turned out that autism, schizophrenia, manic-depressive illness are incredibly genetic disorders. What this means is that genes have an awful lot to say about whether somebody has one of these illnesses. And I have to tell you that as the human genome project approaches completion, in the next few years, we’re going to be discovering the genes that create vulnerability to these disorders.

Now, that’s important because genes are the blueprints of cells and by understanding those blueprints, I think we’re going to come up with treatments that we could not possible have dreamt of.

The other thing, as you mentioned, is we’re learning an enormous amount about how the brain is built and how the brain operates. I brought a few pictures—I don’t know if we can project them, but I think pictures are worth an awful lot. You can see on the left the brain of a healthy person, and on the right the brain of someone with schizophrenia, given a cognitive task that requires planning and holding something in mind. The kind of task that a person with schizophrenia has difficulty with. And what you can see just looking at the red spots, that people with schizophrenia don’t activate their brain in the same way as a person without this illness.

We also know—and I think this is really interesting if we could have the next slide—that our treatments work because they work on the brain. No one is surprised that medication works on the brain, but what we’re learning is that psychotherapy also works on the brain. (Applause.) So what you can see in the lower two brain diagrams is that this is someone with an animal phobia—something that we can study relatively easily—before treatment. Now, after a cognitive behavioral treatment that exposes and desensitizes the person, you can see new spots of activity—they’re shown in green—and they represent activation of our prefrontal cortex, a modern part of the brain—which is actually able to suppress some of the fear circuitry.

Now, I don’t want to over-sell this, but ultimately we’re going to understand how these treatments work in the brain.

And then, finally, I just want to show you a picture that is somewhat alarming, but what we see here on the left, someone with—a healthy person with a normal brain, and then on the right someone who has had severe depression for a long time. What you see outlined in red at the bottom is that a key structure acquired from memory—actually gets smaller, it deteriorates if depression is not treated.

Now, this is not so hopeless as it seems because we believe that with treatment these changes can be reversed. But I’m showing you these pictures again to remind us that these are real diseases of a real organ—the brain—that we can make diagnoses and that these should be treated just like general medical illnesses. (Applause.)

MRS. CLINTON: You know, this is very exciting to all of us, because I think we can, in our own memories, think of diseases that have gone through a process of first being just mysterious; and then myths and stigmas associated with them; and then finally, science being brought to bear, and then the better they’re understood, the more diagnosable and treatable they become.

That’s why I’m also very pleased that in July, under your leadership, the NIMH will launch a $7.3 million landmark study to determine the nature of mental illness and treatments. This will be a study that will help us guide strategies and policies for the next century by collecting information on mental illness, including the prevalence and duration of it, as well as the types of treatments that are most commonly used.

NIMH will announce the launch of two new clinical trials, investing a total of $61 million, to build effective treatments for those affected by mental illness. So we’re taking this information and we’re not just leaving it in a laboratory. We are attempting to use it to implement better policies and better treatment modalities.

And I would just underscore something that was said, and that is that as we learn more, through the human genome project, we have to be even more careful to guard against discrimination against both physical and mental illness. (Applause.)

I want to turn now to Dr. Koplewicz, who is an expert on mental health issues. He has shown me through the NYU Child Studies Center, and I know from firsthand experience and reports how he has brought to bear his extraordinary talent and experience on behalf of children as a child psychiatrist.

And I would like to ask you, you’ve worked with children and families on so many of these issues, what steps can we take to demystify mental illness?

DR. KOPLEWICZ: It’s hard to believe that until 20 years ago we still believed that inadequate parenting and bad childhood traumas were the cause of psychiatric illness in children. And in fact, even though we know better today, that antiquated way of thinking is still out there, so that people who wouldn’t dream of blaming parents for other types of disease, like their child’s diabetes or asthma, still embrace the notion that somehow absent fathers, working mothers, over-permissive parents are the cause of psychiatric illness in children.

And the only way we can change that is through more public awareness. I mean, essentially, these are no-fault brain disorders. And as Dr. Hyman pointed out, these diseases are physiological, they respond to medicine. They’re familial, they run in families. And they have a predictable onset and course. And as we learn more about this, it really becomes necessary for us to do three things.

We have to learn the costs of untreated mental illness, which really is lost school days, lost work days, dropout, marital distress, and also lost opportunity cost—executives and leaders who are quietly depressed and who aren’t functioning at full capacity.

The second thing we have to do is we have to educate kids as early as middle school about mental illness. They learn about AIDS, they learn about seatbelts, but they have to learn about depression anxiety. And we have to educate their parents also.

And the third part is that you need a national public awareness campaign, so that Americans have to understand depression the way they understand heart disease. And the only way that happens is that when you have recognizable national leaders, moral leaders, role models like Tipper Gore, like Mike Wallace, who come out and acknowledge that they have a psychiatric illness, it makes it so much easier for the average citizen then to accept that maybe their child or maybe themselves or maybe another relative might be suffering also.

MRS. CLINTON: I think that’s so right. I remember when Betty Ford went public with her breast cancer. And to the best of my memory, that was the first time anyone in a position like that had, and what a difference that made.
Let me ask you, do children have particular needs, though, when it comes to mental illness, so that we can’t just talk about mental illness generally, we do need to talk specifically about children’s needs.

DR. KOPLEWICZ: Right. Well, as we all know, kids are not little adults, their brains are different. But child psychiatry has really lagged behind in many ways. I mean, there are three major problems—one is access. It is really a problem because there are 6,000 child and adolescent psychiatrists in the whole country. Pediatricians get very little training about mental health. And in many states across the United States Medicaid does not pay, forcing parents or forcing school officials or school teachers, so that treating a child is much more complex.

The next issue is research—not only basic epidemiology, treatment, prevention—in many ways we lag behind. And while the funding has increased dramatically in the last six years, it’s still out of whack when you consider the impact and how common these child psychiatric illnesses are in society. So compared to childhood cancer, we really are not dedicating nearly enough funds for the research of child mental health.

And the last part again, of course, is that it’s the stigma. The stigma is worse for kids. Let me remind you, teenagers are never volunteering to be customers for mental health services. So parents not only feel bad about themselves, many people are telling them they’ve done something wrong and then the kid doesn’t want to go on top of that. So those things are much more difficult for children, adolescents, than for adults.

MRS. CLINTON: Well, I think that part of what we we’ve got to do, though, is reflect how we can both identify and get help to children who need it, whether or not they want it or are willing to accept it. I think all of us have the tragedy at Littleton in mind, and we also know of the other school shootings; and in the ones that don’t get as much publicity, there may have been signs, there may have been some way that we could have intervened and prevented.

So what can we do to intervene early, before mental illness causes a child to be violent to others or, as we see increasingly, to be a victim of suicide, which is a leading cause of death of young people?

DR. KOPLEWICZ: I mean, the real tragedy of Littleton is that—and in these other recent incidents of school violence—is that they’re most probably preventable. Normal children just don’t snap and go out on a shooting spree. Children who commit violent crimes almost always have histories of violence, depression or other mental health problems. And, unfortunately, schools and parents ignore psychiatric illness.

The problem is that we have never really looked at the underlying cause of all this violence, which is childhood psychiatric illness, which is a tremendous problem -- 12 percent of the population under the age of 18 -- that’s about 8 million children, teenagers, in the United States today—have a diagnosable psychiatric illness. And that means that about 2 million children have depression, teenagers have depression.

And not all of them are going out to shoot someone, but they’re certainly more at risk and they’re certainly suffering and at risk for hurting themselves or others. And the problem is that while teachers ignore it and parents ignore it very often, unless we have a national public awareness campaign, unless we dedicate ourselves to child mental health the way we have to other mental health issues, it becomes really quite impossible for us to address this problem. So that someday, if teachers, pediatricians, if family practitioners were more aware of mental health warning signs for children, adolescence, that’s the first step.

And, frankly, with public awareness, I think we have reached the point with a focus that mending of broken bones should be the same as getting help for emotional distress. It should be just as acceptable. It should be just as expected. Because, you see, if we don’t do that, I think what happens, these kids lose out on schooling, making friends, and at the end of the day they lose out on happiness that we expect for all of our children. (Applause.)


* * * * *

MRS. CLINTON: I really want to thank you not only for coming forward, as you have in the past and again today, but for putting your energies behind this issue in the Congress and using your own personal experience to really make a difference, and I know that it will continue to do that.

I want to thank our three panelists and really not only thank them, but all of you who work on the issue of mental health and mental illness, and particularly the scientific research that we’re learning so much more about. And, hopefully, this conference and the work that is being done because of it will get that word out to many, many Americans, and maybe they’ll say, well, you know, I heard Dr. Hyman or I saw the pictures or I listened to the Congresswoman or whatever it might be. And for that, we’re very grateful, and especially to you, Tipper.
So, back to you. (Applause.)


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