One recent Saturday, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray hosted a citywide discussion on mental health. The event was planned as part of a national dialogue on mental health launched this year by President Barack Obama.

The president’s goal is to start conversations that will give Americans a chance to learn more about mental health issues from each other and from research. The conversations are meant to help participants decide how best to address mental health needs in their families, communities and the country as a whole.

The D.C. event was held at the Washington Convention Center. People from all over the region came together to discuss the challenges of meeting local mental health needs. An artist, 16-year-old Thomas Vocab Hill, performed a powerful piece inspired by a person struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Juanita Price of the nonprofit Hillcrest Children’s and Family Center, an outpatient mental health facility in the District, spoke about the fear and discrimination faced by people suffering from mental illness.

She noted that nearly a quarter of Americans believe a mentally ill person to be dangerous.

“We discriminate against people with mental illnesses. We discriminate against the families. There is discrimination associated with mental health,” Price said.

She implored listeners to drop cultural bias and help their mentally ill neighbors and loved ones.

“If you call something a weed it is likely to die but if you call it a flower it will grow and thrive,” she said.
Speakers also mentioned the alarming fact that suicide is the leading cause of death for young people aged 15 to 24. Yet it was heartening to me to see so many young faces in the audience. The sight made me feel like youth really are working to understand the mental health needs of this city and region and are ready to work to improve them.

With this large discussion on the books, there may be hope that the city’s new Department of Behavioral Health can become a driving force for the improvement of life here in the District. Events like this help get to the heart of the matter.