Nearly six months after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, President Obama is hosting a conference at the White House to bring mental health issues "out of the shadows."
"The main goal of this conference is not to start a conversation," Obama said. "So many of you have spent decades waging long and lonely battles to be heard. Instead, it's about elevating that conversation to a national level and bringing mental illness out of the shadows. We want to let people living with mental health challenges know that they are not alone."
One in five adults experiences mental illness, Obama noted. Forty-five million Americans suffer from diseases like depression or anxiety, schizophrenia or PTSD, but less than 40 percent receive treatment.
The president called for an end to the social stigma associated with such illnesses. "There should be no shame in discussing or seeking help for treatable illnesses that affect too many people that we love," he said. "We've got to get rid of that embarrassment. … Too many Americans who struggle with mental health illnesses are still suffering in silence rather than seeking help."
The president said his administration, under the Affordable Care Act, is expanding mental health benefits for more than 60 million Americans and providing resources for research to better identify and treat mental illness.
"You're not alone," the president said. "You're surrounded by people who care about you and who will support you on the journey to get well. We're here for you. And that's what this conference is about, why these issues are so important. So if there's anybody out there who's listening, if you're struggling, seek help."
The day-long conference is intended to build on the administration's efforts to reduce gun violence in the wake of the deadly Dec. 14. shooting in Newtown, Conn. It comes as the fate of efforts on Capitol Hill to pass sweeping gun control legislation remain uncertain.
The so-called Manchin-Toomey bill failed in the Senate in April. Lawmakers hope to bring it up for another vote before the August recess.
"I want to be absolutely clear, the overwhelming majority of people who suffer from mental illnesses are not violent," Obama said. "But we also know that most suicides each year involve someone with a mental health or substance abuse disorder. And in some cases, when a condition goes untreated, it can lead to tragedy on a larger scale.
"We can do something about stories like these. In many cases, treatment is available and effective," he said.
Obama also used today's event to announce that the Department of Veterans Affairs would direct its national health care centers to conduct its own mental health summits. Local governments and community organizations will partner with veterans' groups for the meetings, which would take place at 151 centers across the country, beginning in July.
The directive comes as suicide rates among service members continue to steadily rise. Twenty-two veterans kill themselves each day, according to Pentagon records.
The president is being joined at the conference today by lawmakers, educators, health care providers and advocates, including celebrities Glenn Close and Bradley Cooper.