President Obama on Monday addressed the stigma surrounding mental illness, an issue that received little White House attention during the push for new firearms restrictions but is now getting a second look following the stinging defeat of the president's gun control measures.
Obama convened a mental health summit Monday at the White House, months after the December massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. With immigration reform now pushing gun control further down the president's list of priorities and Washington consumed by a trio of administration scandals, Obama is embracing an issue on which there's a rare bipartisan consensus.
Mental health was raised during the gun control debate, when opponents of expanded background checks for gun buyers suggested it would be more meaningful to create a national database of those who suffer from mental illness and who are forbidden to buy firearms. Obama on Monday didn't directly mention guns but alluded to the potential harm that undetected mental illness would cause.
"I want to be absolutely clear. The overwhelming majority of people who suffer from mental illnesses are not violent," Obama said. "But we also know that most suicides each year involve some mental health or substance abuse disorder. And in some cases, when a condition goes untreated, it can lead to tragedy on a larger scale. We can do something about stories like this."
And Vice President Biden, Obama's point man on gun issues, didn't call for new gun laws during the gathering.
Obama's embrace of mental health issues didn't go unnoticed by the National Rifle Association, which helped defeat the president's proposed gun restrictions.
"The NRA supports efforts to fix our broken mental health system," said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. "That is something substantive that Congress and the president could do right now that would help prevent future tragedies, unlike the gun control proposals that the president unsuccessfully tried to push through Congress."
Following the mass slaying at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Obama proposed new restrictions, including expanded background checks, an assault weapons ban and limits on high-capacity ammo magazines.
That Obama chose not to mention guns at a conference formed in response to Newtown both highlighted the White House's political conundrum and infuriated those who believe the president has given up on the issue.
"Nobody questions whether mental health is important," said a gun control activist with close White House connections. "The only reason they were doing the mental health event was because of Sandy Hook. So, how can you not talk about Sandy Hook or guns? It's truly puzzling."
Obama framed the gathering with actors, such as Bradley Cooper and Glenn Close, Cabinet members and health groups as a way to bring brain illnesses "out of the shadows."
It's unclear whether Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza had mental health issues, but those involved in other high-profile killings, including a movie theater shooting in Colorado, did have such a history.
Obama ordered the Department of Veterans Affairs to hold more than 150 mental health summits across the country to encourage the mentally ill to come forward.
"You see commercials on TV about a whole array of physical health issues, some of them very personal," Obama said alluding to sexual dysfunction ads. "And yet, we whisper about mental health issues and avoid asking too many questions."