Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady at the "Change Direction" Mental Heath Event

March 04, 2015

MRS. OBAMA: Thank you, everyone. Pardon my cough. I know somebody else out there has this cough. (Laughter.)

But I want to start by thanking the Newseum for hosting us here today, and Barbara Van Dahlen, and everyone from Give an Hour for leading the charge on this event and this issue for so long. I want to thank my dear friend, Bruce, who has been just a constant source of support on so many issues. He is a wonderful man, and he is doing a great job for his country.

And of course, I want to thank Jenn, not just for her kind introduction, but she's an amazing woman. She is an inspiration. And we all are grateful for her outstanding service to our country. So let's give Jenn another round of applause. (Applause.)

Through our Joining Forces initiative, I've had the chance to hear the stories of so many veterans like Jenn, folks who are so driven, who are so skilled and so ready to lead, but who have encountered obstacles during their transitions out of the military. And I'd like to begin today by sharing the story of another one of those talented veterans –- a man named Ryan Rigdon.

Ryan joined the Navy when he was 20 years old -- young like Jenn. He was deployed to Iraq a few years later. He served as a senior explosive ordnance disposal technician, which is a complicated way of saying that he was on the team that disarmed bombs and IEDs. His first day on duty in Baghdad, Ryan and his team were sent out to dismantle explosives seven different times. That was just one day. Then there was the night Ryan encountered a live IED that was camouflaged to look like a rock. Ryan didn't have his protective suit on, and he knew the device could explode at any minute. So he flipped it over, disarmed it with his bare hands.

And then there were the missions where Ryan and his team would head to a place where a roadside bomb had just exploded, oftentimes killing Americans. Their job was to clear the area of any remaining explosives, which meant sorting through unimaginable wreckage and carnage.

During his two deployments, Ryan was awarded a Bronze Star and an Army Commendation Medal. Yet despite these accolades, he experienced extreme emotional highs and lows -– one moment was like an adrenaline rush, he was ready to take on the world; the next, he felt like he'd fallen flat on his face, scared out of his mind.

And of course, while Ryan was deployed, his life back home didn't stop. His wife, Whitney, had a baby daughter while he was gone, and Ryan didn't get to meet her until she was three months old. Later, his oldest daughter began having seizures. Doctors couldn't figure out why. Eventually, all of this stress took its toll on Ryan.

When he came home from his second deployment, he started having constant, splitting headaches. His ears wouldn't stop ringing. He had nightmares and panic attacks. He'd pace through the house at night thinking his family was in danger. A few times, he even flipped over his bed trying to find something underneath. Ryan knew he needed help, but he didn't want to go on medication. Instead, he coped by gambling online, drinking a little too much.

Finally, another sailor noticed he was struggling and encouraged him to seek counseling. Fortunately, Ryan took his advice. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress and he found out he'd be medically discharged from the Navy.

For almost a year, Ryan -- his life was up in the air. He was applying for job after job but nothing panned out. He eventually found work in Dallas, and even though he had a good counselor there, Ryan continued to struggle. He was worried about everything from his future to his family to his health.

Finally, one night he hit rock bottom. He lay awake in bed, crying. He'd had enough. He said, "I was just tired of it." He said, "I was letting my family down. I was feeling worthless." So he got up, walked into the bathroom, and prepared to take his own life.

In Ryan's story we hear the story of far too many of our veterans –- the struggle to adjust to a new life. The terrors and anxieties that just won't go away, even when they're back home, safe in their own beds. But it's important to note that most of our veterans come home and don't experience any mental health problems at all. It's also important to note that the veterans who do struggle are not alone. There are millions of Americans affected by mental health challenges every year.

So this isn't just about our troops and veterans. In fact, every year, roughly one in five adults -– or more than 40 million Americans -– experience a diagnosable mental health condition like depression or anxiety. And young people are affected at similar rates. These conditions touch folks of every age, every background. They're our kids, our grandparents, our friends, neighbors, co-workers, and yes, our veterans.

And this shouldn't be surprising to any of us because, let's face it, life can be stressful. Folks are faced with all kinds of challenges. They are stretched thin at work. Their paychecks don't stretch far enough. Millions struggle every day just to get by. Then you add social, biological, and genetic factors on top of all that, and sometimes it's just too much.

So the fact is that many people in this country are fighting to put one foot in front of the other just to make it through the day. And often they don't ask for help because they're worried about how it will look.

At the root of this dilemma is the way we view mental health in this country. When it comes to mental health conditions, we often treat them differently from other diseases like cancer, diabetes or asthma. And that makes no sense. Whether an illness affects your heart, your leg or your brain, it's still an illness, and there should be no distinction. (Applause.) Because we know that mental health is just as important to our overall well-being as our physical health. In fact, as Jenn alluded to, our mental health seriously affects our physical health –- studies suggest that people living with depression are more likely to die from heart disease.

So there should be absolutely no stigma around mental health. None. Zero. I mean, just imagine if we treated breast cancer the way we treat mental health. Imagine if, instead of admiring cancer patients for their courage as they fight this disease, we feared them or were embarrassed by them. Imagine if we told folks with heart disease that they should just buck up and get it together. (Laughter.) Imagine if we made these folks feel that taking cholesterol medication or having surgery was something to be ashamed of. Imagine how many people wouldn't be alive today if we took that approach.

So it is really time to flip the script on mental health in this country. It's time. It's time to tell everyone who's dealing with a mental health issue that they're not alone, and that getting support and treatment isn't a sign of weakness, it's a sign of strength. (Applause.) That's something that my husband believes strongly as President. Because in this country, when you're fighting an illness –- whether that's mental or physical –- you should be able to get the help you need, end of story. (Applause.)

That's why the Affordable Care Act expands mental health and substance-abuse benefits and parity protections to roughly 60 million Americans -- (applause) -- and requires new plans to cover things like depression screenings for adults, behavioral assessments for kids.

And for our troops and veterans, my husband recently signed a bill to help prevent veteran suicide. (Applause.) He put more counselors in place to improve access to care. He expanded the capacity of the Veterans Crisis Line and the community-based Vets Centers. And the VA just finalized an important new policy that ensures that service members who are taking health -- mental health medications can continue to do so as they transition from the military care at the VA -- to the VA.

So we are making progress on this issue. But we also know that government can't do this alone. Because this isn't just a policy issue or a budget issue, it's a cultural issue. Real change here requires a shift not just in our policies, but in our attitudes.

And that's why, almost two years ago, we hosted the National Conference on Mental Health at the White House –- because we wanted to reach out across the country and start changing the entire way we view mental health in America. And that was the beginning of something really exciting, because after that conference, Dr. Van Dahlen and so many others decided to bring together folks from all sectors of our society to take this issue on.

And the result is what we're proud to announce today: The Campaign to Change Direction. It's a coalition that includes business and government, nonprofits, the medical community, our schools, our faith communities, and so many others. These folks are all coming together to raise awareness about mental health and give people tools to help someone who might be experiencing a mental health issue.

For example, they're releasing a list of symptoms called The Five Signs. This list includes things like withdrawal, agitation, hopelessness, decline in personal care, change in personality –- signs that any one of us might notice in a family member or a co-worker struggling with mental health. And everyone should know all about these signs. That should be like knowing how to check for lumps in a breast or getting your cholesterol taken.

So I want to encourage everyone in this country to go to ChangeDirection.org to learn more. I also want to encourage folks across the country to follow the lead of businesses and organizations like Give an Hour, Team Rubicon, Wake Forest University –- all who've committed to making a difference on mental health.

For example, Give an Hour is co-sponsoring The Campaign to Change Direction with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and [SAMHSA] will be providing subject matter expertise and coordinating our federal outreach through the VA, the DOD and HHS.

In addition, Booz Allen will be training 11,000 employees on the Five Signs. They're going to be hosting awareness events, convening small group discussions among their staff. And the National Council for Behavioral Health will be training 3 million people in Mental Health First Aid. I went through some of this training a few weeks ago -- a shorter version of it, I have to say. (Laughter.) But even in that short time, I saw just how useful these tools were. It really gives you the skills you need to identify and ultimately help someone in need. Because you never know when these skills might be useful.

And that brings me back to Ryan, the veteran I was telling you about earlier, and the moment he hit rock bottom. Now, thankfully, Ryan didn't end his own life that night. Instead, a couple of days later, Ryan summoned the courage to tell a co-worker that he'd thought about suicide. And the co-worker, an Army veteran himself, called the Veterans Crisis Line. He reached out to the local VA. He offered to drive Ryan there. But Ryan promised his friend that he'd drive himself, and he did that very same day.

Through the VA and Give an Hour, Ryan got the medication and counseling he needed. And slowly, he's getting better. Ryan will be the first to tell you that he still struggles sometimes, but he knows that he has the support of his wife and family. And he's proud to share his story if it means he can help just one more person. That's how Ryan keeps serving his country, just like Jenn. So, Ryan, I know you're out there. I'd like to ask you to stand up so that we can applaud you for your courage. There's my man Ryan. (Applause.)

Now, Ryan's story could have ended in heartbreak, but the people in his life wouldn't let that happen. The sailor who reached out to him, the co-worker who supported him, his wife who was there for him every day, year after year -- they all showed Ryan that he didn't have to do this alone, and they helped him to change direction.

And that's what we've got to do for every single person in our own lives. We've got to listen. We've got to connect with them. We have to offer our compassion so that our friends and families and neighbors and our veterans can get the help they need, just like we would if they were diagnosed with cancer or heart disease or anything else. Because we all know that our mental health is just as vital as our physical health, so it's time we started treating it that way.

And that's going to take some courage from everybody –- the courage to reach out and have those tough conversations with a friend. The courage to listen, and seek help for ourselves when necessary.

But here's the thing: If we can all just summon that strength like Ryan did, like Jenn did, then I guarantee you that we will save lives in the years ahead -- important, valuable lives. And soon enough, caring for our mental health won't be considered such a courageous act, it'll be just another part our lives, just like any other part.

So what you all are doing is bringing us so much closer to that goal. This day is important. And I want to end by thanking all of you for the passion, the dedication, the endless hard work that you have been putting into this issue for so long. I am so proud of all of you. I'm grateful to you. And I look forward to working with you really hard in the months and years ahead.

So congratulations. Let's roll up our sleeves and keep getting stuff done. Thank you so much. (Applause.)

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady at the "Change Direction" Mental Heath Event Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/321820

Filed Under



Washington, DC

Simple Search of Our Archives