My Visit to the White House - National Conference on Mental Health

By Nicholas Croce posted 06-21-2013 01:00 PM

White House Mental Health Conference
June 3, 2013

I had the honor and privilege of representing APNA at the National Conference on Mental Health held at the White House on June 3, 2013. I wanted to share with you a more detailed account, so I sat down and chronicled my impressions and experience in this blog. I hope that you enjoy it!

To say that the White House has security is like saying Bill Gates has dollars. There is a labyrinth of access points, all of which require photo ID and somebody with a lot of armament matching your name to a list. This is all before you go through a metal detector and then a machine which I’m sure was able to image the oatmeal that I had for breakfast.

Once I made it through the security, I found myself standing at the foot of the stairs that lead up to the East Wing of the White House. It was an awe-inspiring moment and one that I will never forget. As I climbed the stairs and entered “The People’s House”, I encountered military personnel, dressed in impeccable ceremonial uniform (white gloves and all!), who guided us through the hall to a reception area. The walls in the reception area are adorned with portraits of past presidents - not the ones you buy in a souvenir shop - the real portraits. I recognized the staircase in front of me from the movie “The American President” – it was the one which leads to the President’s private residence. I am pretty sure I could not have made it up even one step before the secret service agent standing there intervened!

I have been to many receptions in my life and the noise from all the conversations can be deafening. In this case, conversation was subdued as we listened to a member of the Marine Corps gently playing on a grand piano. I wandered through the room doing my best to say hello to people I knew and to make new friends. I ran into Pam Hyde, Administrator of SAMHSA, actress Glenn Close, Senator Al Franken, and actor Bradley Cooper. Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy was gracious when I thanked him again for addressing our 25th anniversary celebration in Anaheim. He also introduced me to his cousin Timothy Shriver, who is an educator and now chairman of the Special Olympics. (Shriver also bears a striking resemblance to President Kennedy.)

As the giant doors of the East Room opened, our military escorts directed us into a room which already had at least 100 photographers lined along the back wall. I estimate that there were perhaps 130 people in attendance, not counting the 10 or 12 congressmen and senators who sat off to the side. Suddenly, without being told to do so, we all became silent and all eyes moved to the door. A voice came over the speakers and said “Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States!” Into the room walked President Barack Obama with two members of his cabinet, Secretary Sebelius of the Department of Health and Human Services and Secretary Duncan of the Department of Education. At that moment, I did not sense a single Democrat, Republican, or Independent in the room. We were all Americans and we were standing in respect and applause for “The President.”

President Obama welcomed us and delivered a very forceful speech on the need to reduce the stigma of mental illness. I had heard that he always uses a teleprompter, but in this case he had only a few handwritten notes which he used to remind himself of the names of some of the people he introduced. The remainder of the time he spoke without notes, without a teleprompter, and with what I thought was real passion. This is when it occurred to me that, with few exceptions, everyone who was present in that room fully understands the issues surrounding mental health. He was not so much preaching to the choir as he was telling the choir to sing louder. He never promised us any additional funding, but what he was delivering was the full force of the White House’s influence. His administration will work with us, he was saying, but each and every one of us must work to eliminate the stigma that is attached to mental illness. The President was there to motivate and inspire. He spoke of how the Affordable Care Act will provide insurance coverage for many who lack it now and he talked about how insurance companies need to be brought to task to cover mental illness in the same manner in which they cover physical illness. He descended the podium and walked slowly out of the room to a standing ovation, all of us sincere in our applause and appreciation of his message.

Afterward, we stayed in the East Room to hear comments from people with personal stories about the impact of mental illness and substance use disorders on their lives and that of their families’. The session was moderated by Secretary Sebelius and while the information was not new, it did add emphasis to the President’s message. For me, the highlight was the impassioned plea from Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy to release the rules on parity.

We next broke for a working lunch. My group was to meet in Indian Treaty Room, just a scant four floors up in the Eisenhower Office Building. Since the ceiling height in this building is 20 to 25 feet, each flight of stairs is equivalent to two or three in a normal building. I was proud of myself as I made it past the third floor, which was where we began to lose several of the older members of our group. Once in the Indian Treaty Room, we were assigned tables and I was able to sit with both Timothy Shriver and Bradley Cooper. Each of us sitting at the table introduced ourselves, described the role of our organization, and determined how those sitting with us could help us to deliver the White House’s message.

The descent down the four flights of stairs after lunch was much easier. We convened in the White House South Court Auditorium to listen in on a session moderated by Secretary of Education Duncan on innovations in delivering our message. We heard about the use of text messages and social media as well as the use of narratives as a form of therapy. The “Q&A” following these presentations was not so much questions about the presentations as it was individuals expressing their own frustrations or needs, such as funding for research or increased reimbursements to attract more providers.

We all knew the next item on the agenda: closing remarks by Vice President Biden. As a figure appeared from backstage and began to walk toward the podium, the crowd became absolutely energized. People were clapping, whistling and cheering! Bradley Cooper had assumed the podium! He humbly thanked everyone and introduced his good friend, Vice President Joseph Biden. Vice President Biden is often referred to as “Uncle Joe.” He was incredibly charming and, like the President, was forceful and passionate. He too affirmed the full support of the White House in helping to get the word out to reduce stigma of mental health.

The Vice President frequently referenced psychiatric mental health nurses, which was a real highlight of his remarks. He has a very warm spot in his heart for all nurses and particularly acknowledged the work of psychiatric nurses. He spoke of the need for more psych nurses and remarked that doctors try to help you live but it is the nurses who give you the will to live. He has some strong firsthand knowledge of the medical system, having endured two cerebral aneurysms from which he was not expected to survive. He acknowledges the importance of the neurosurgeons in his care but recognizes that, when he woke up, it was a nurse who was by his side.

As I mentioned earlier, it was my honor and pleasure to represent APNA at this conference. We have already begun to take actions with modifications to our website. We are providing resources to nurses, other providers, and the public. Our task should not be to ask, “What is APNA doing about reducing stigma?” It must instead be, “What will each of us do to help normalize the behavior of this country so that mental illness no longer carries the stigma that undermines our ability to support persons in recovery or prevent those who can recover from availing themselves of services?”

Respectfully submitted,


Nicholas Croce Jr, MS
APNA Executive Director

The following is report provided by the White House regarding conference:

On Monday, June 3rd, President Obama and Vice President Biden hosted a National Conference on Mental Health at the White House as part of the Administration’s effort to launch a national conversation to increase understanding and awareness about mental health. The conference brought together people from across the country, including mental health advocates, educators, health care providers, faith leaders, members of Congress, representatives from local governments and individuals who have struggled with mental health problems, to discuss how we can all work together to reduce stigma and help the millions of Americans struggling with mental health problems recognize the importance of reaching out for assistance.

Building on Progress

The conference builds on the President’s plan to reduce gun violence, which calls on Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Education Secretary Arne Duncan launched a national conversation to increase understanding and awareness of mental health. It also builds on a number of steps to raise awareness and improve care for those experiencing mental health issues, including veterans, a topic Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki addressed in the closing session. For example:

  • Expanding Mental Health Coverage. The Affordable Care Act will expand mental health and substance use disorder benefits and parity protections for 62 million Americans. In addition, thanks to the health care law, beginning in 2014, insurers will no longer be able to deny anyone coverage because of a pre-existing mental health condition. The law already ensures that new health plans cover recommended preventive benefits without cost sharing, including depression screening for adults and adolescents and behavioral assessments for children.
  • Supporting Young People. The President’s Fiscal Year 2014 Budget includes a new $130 million initiative to help teachers and other adults recognize signs of mental illness in students and refer them to help if needed, support innovative state-based programs to improve mental health outcomes for young people ages 16-to-25, and help train 5,000 additional mental health professionals with a focus on serving students and young adults. 
  • Improving Access to Services for Veterans. In response to the President’s Executive Order in August of 2012, the Department of Veterans Affairs has achieved their goal of increasing capacity by hiring 1,600 new mental health providers, over 300 peer-to-peer veteran specialists, establishing 24 pilot projects in nine states where VA is partnering with community mental health providers to help Veterans access mental health services in a timely way and enhancing the capacity of its Crisis Line by 50 percent. 
    • At the conference, the President announced that the Department of Veterans Affairs is directing 152 of its health care centers nationwide to conduct Mental Health Summits with community partners, including local government officials, community-based organizations, and Veteran Service Organizations starting July 1 through September 15. The Summits will identify and link community-based resources to support the mental health needs of Veterans and their families, as well as help increase awareness of available VA programs and services. 
    • Also at the conference, White House staff members from the Domestic Policy Council, the Office of Public Engagement, Joining Forces, and Dr. Biden’s Office met with representatives from a number of organizations focusing on military family members during a break-out session to address family issues impacting access to mental health. The dialogue focused on ways to improve mental health and well-being for the Veterans and their families in their local communities.


07-12-2013 02:27 PM

Thanks so very much for assuring a seat at the table for the Psychiatric Mental Health Nurses during this great period of change for the better in mental health care delivery and stigma reduction. Proud to be a member of such a great collaborative.

06-28-2013 10:51 PM

Thanks for sharing your lived experience of being part of an important discussion regarding mental health in the USA. THE WHITE HOUSE! I think of F. Capra, the author of The Turning Point. He predicted that nurses would become key players in the shifting paradigms of health care. APNA is at the forefront of this shift thanks to your leadership and to all of us who support APNA.

06-25-2013 05:05 PM

Thanks so much for the detailed account of your experience. I too felt like I was walking up those stairs with you and joining you in the room! Thank you for representing all of us at such an important time in our history and that of healthcare!

06-23-2013 10:05 AM

So proud to know that APNA was represented at such an important event. Thank you, Nick, for describing the experience so clearly. It felt like I was in the room.

06-22-2013 07:03 AM

So well written, and I agree with Suzane, I am so happy you are our exec director! And am pleased with the addition to the APNA website. I am hoping our SB491 in CA passes and we join our neighboring states for independent practice for NP's (wishing it was for all APRN's) and then it will be even more paramount that the federal legislation be completed to allow us full prescriptive authority in DATA 2000 medication buprenorphine. I have a client now wanting to move to NM and finding that to get this medication he has to drive 4 hours. Since it is a progression in how this is dosed he needs to be seen daily at first. What a hardship leading to of course noncompliance!
I am so happy that substance use and mental health disorders are being addressed by our government officials to destigmatize them, and hoping this extends to the families of the individuals with these disorders. As we know the marginalizing causes more mental health issues and can lead to isolation and violence against self or others.

06-21-2013 08:11 PM

Nick, I am proud to be a member of an organization that is represented by you. You have done so much for us (APNA), and your enhancement of our visibility at the White House Conference may be hard for you to top. Timothy Shriver!! His father is one of my all time heroes! I assure you that we in California are doing all that we can to keep our members informed, to prevent stigma and to help people have better lives.

06-21-2013 07:11 PM

Nick, thanks for all you have done to make sure we are at the table when critical conversations about mental health and illness are taking place. I really appreciate the wonderful description of your experience at the White House conference. I look forward to continuing the conversation about reducing stigma and encouraging prevention and treatment of mental illness. Proud to be a member of APNA.
Take care, Topsy Staten

06-21-2013 04:29 PM

Nick ,
Thank you for blogging about that very special day and for sharing with us - the rest of APNA - your experience. You have indeed represented APNA well and I hope that we can continue this "national dialogue on mental health" all year long and beyond.
Best, John