Dispelling Mental Health Myths

President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore and their wives are convening the first White House conference on mental illness Monday, an effort to dispel myths about people who suffer from depression, schizophrenia and other psychiatric problems.

Mr. Clinton was using the gathering Monday to announce a $7.3 million study by the National Institute of Mental Health to explore mental illness and to put the 285 health plans used by federal employees on notice that they must cover mental illness and substance abuse.

Additionally, the administration was pressing Congress to pass a bill to stop forcing people with disabilities who are receiving Medicare or Medicaid to give up their benefits to go to work.

More than changing policy, the conference was aimed at changing attitudes.

"The hard truth is, in too many of our communities and in too many of our hearts, mental illness is misunderstood and feared," Mr. Clinton said in his weekly radio address Saturday.

Tipper Gore, the vice president's wife who recently disclosed that she had battled depression, joined President Clinton in that appearance.

"One of the most widely believed and most damaging myths is that mental illness is a personal failure, not a physical disease," she said. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

Mrs. Gore, a longtime advocate for the mentally ill, took the lead in organizing the conference, which was being linked to more than 1,000 sites nationwide by satellite and moderated by veteran newsman Mike Wallace, who also overcame depression.

Five Cabinet secretaries and more than 20 members of Congress from both parties were participating in the daylong session at Howard University.

Mrs. Gore is working with Surgeon General David Satcher and the Ad Council to produce the campaign on mental illness. Mr. Clinton issued an executive order Friday to eliminate the government's stricter hiring and promotion standards for mentally disabled people.

As the conference opened, the president was serving notice to all health care groups serving the Federal Employees Health Benefits Plan that they would have to offer mental health and substance abuse treatment on par with treatment for other disabilities if they wanted to continue participating in the plan. The step was expected to raise mental health premiums by about 2 percent.

Barry McCaffrey, the White House drug policy director, has strongly supported parity coverage for substance abuse, noting that 70 percent of drug abusers are employed.

"The National Drug Control Strategy's goal of reducing drug use by 50 percent in the next 10 years can only be accomplished with a significant expansion of capacity to treat the nation's drug users," McCaffrey said.

Written By Kevin Galvin