Understanding of the brain and treatment of mental illness and brain diseases are at a transformative crossroads, said Vice President Joe Biden as he presented the William C. Menninger Memorial Convocation Lecture at APA’s 2014 annual meeting May 5 in New York. Biden said passage of the mental health parity law and the release last year of regulatory guidance for the law, along with the new Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative, announced by the Obama Administration last year, is creating a transformative moment for psychiatry and patients with mental illness.
Vice President Joe Biden, speaking at APA’s 2014 annual meeting in New York earlier this month, said that the field of mental health care is poised for major advancements that will “create the tools to find new ways to treat, cure, and even prevent conditions affecting the brain.” He emphasized that “We need [psychiatrists] more than ever, and frankly we need more of you.” See story at right. Full coverage of the annual meeting will begin in the next issue.
“We are on the cusp of astounding possibilities,” he said. “I know that we are poised to create the tools to find new ways to treat, cure, and even prevent conditions affecting the brain. And we are on the cusp of identifying the biomarkers for mental illness, designing early prevention treatments for psychosis and revolutionizing the understanding of the brain circuitry and function. Imagine the possibilities for millions of young people right at the age when they want to explore the world if we have these tools of early detection to prevent mental illness from taking over their lives.”
Biden continued, “Just as we couldn’t imagine how the moon landing would yield technologies for semiconductors and the iPhone, I don’t think we can begin to imagine the breakthroughs that will occur tomorrow as a consequence of this BRAIN Initiative.”
He added that the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act and the Affordable Care Act open new opportunities for patients to access treatment. “A major step forward is breaking down the structural barriers [to care] and expanding access,” he said. “I am fully aware that enforcement is the key, but patients are now empowered to find out more information and to hold their insurer accountable if they are denied coverage. None of us believe that will automatically happen—this is new territory. But rest assured that we know the next step is enforcement and getting it right.”
Biden hailed the work of psychiatrists, recalling a visit he received from a college roommate whose son had serious mental illness. “I remember the metaphor he used. . . . He said, ‘I don’t know what to do. I feel like my boy is at the end of a string, and if I pull too hard it will break. And I will lose him forever.’
“I found the metaphor incredibly compelling,” Biden said. “There are too many people who know that feeling—they don’t know what to do, but they know if they pull too hard that string may break and they will lose their blood.
“But you give them hope they are not alone,” Biden said to the thousands of psychiatrists sitting before him and watching from monitors placed at a number of annual meeting locations. “We need you more than ever, and frankly we need more of you. You are the only ones who can help pull the string and significantly decrease the prospect that it will break.”
APA leaders hailed the vice president’s remarks. “I am delighted that Vice President Biden accepted our invitation to address the thousands of attendees at APA’s 2014 annual meeting,” said APA President Jeffrey Lieberman, M.D. “The vice president has been an ardent advocate for improved mental health services, the elimination of stigma, and increased research on mental illness. The administration’s pledge last year to devote $100 million to increasing access to mental health services, convening the White House National Conference on Mental Health in 2013 and the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative, has demonstrated the president’s and vice president’s commitment to addressing this critical public-health need. Vice President Biden has shown great insight and compassion for the plight of individuals with mental illness and appreciation for the ability of health care services to reduce the suffering of the people so afflicted and the burden of illness to our country.”
Incoming APA President Paul Summergrad, M.D., called Biden a “staunch ally in the battle to end the stigma surrounding mental illness and to guarantee that everyone who needs appropriate psychiatric care receives it. It was a rare honor to hear Mr. Biden say this with the true passion that he so clearly feels. We are grateful for the support of the vice president and the administration for making sure that mental health care occurs for all who need it.”
APA CEO and Medical Director Saul Levin, M.D., M.P.A., said, “It is to the nation’s benefit that we in the mental health and psychiatric treatment field can look forward to participating in the work with Vice President Biden that will transform the way mental illness is treated in this country with respect to equality of services, access, and network adequacy for persons with mental health needs.” ■