Advocating for Children, Families with Mental Health Needs
Sandra Spencer jokes about becoming a regular visitor to the White House.
But the reason for her four trips in roughly six months is nothing but serious: to talk to President Obama and his advisers about children’s mental health.
As executive director for the National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health – which is headquarterd at Johns Hopkins Montgomery County Campus – Spencer is honored to have a seat at the table. And she is making her voice heard.
“I was instrumental in removing the ideology that parents were somehow to blame for their child’s mental illness,” Spencer said. “Mental illness manifests itself through behavior. People connect (bad) behavior to bad parenting. My message was if a child has a mental illness, traditional parenting strategies are not effective.”
The National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health is a national organization advocating at the national level for children and the families of children with mental health challenges.
To that end, Spencer first went to the White House in December, shortly after the school shooting in Newtown, Conn. She was invited to participate in Vice President Biden’s task force on gun control. Since then, she has attended a news conference with the president on initiating conversations on mental health and attended another meeting at the White House regarding mental health issues.
In June, she attended the National Conference on Mental Health. The White House brought together health care experts, psychologists, faith leaders, veterans advocates and administration officials. Conversation focused on reducing the stigma associated with mental illness and finding ways to encourage those who need emotional help to seek it.
Spencer said she appreciated President Obama’s sensitivity to the issue and his acknowledgement that most people with mental illness are not violent.
“This conference focused on mental health,” Spencer said. “It wasn’t about violence and school shootings. It was about the need to reduce the stigma around mental illness.
“The president did a really good job of talking about families doing the best they can, but they don’t know what to do, how to get help,” Spencer continued.
Spencer said Obama showed through his remarks that he understood that mental health issues are often stigmatized.
“The main goal of this conference is not to start a conversation,” Obama said, according to a transcript of his comments. “So many of you have spent decades waging long and lonely battles to be heard. Instead, it’s about elevating that conversation to a national level and bringing mental illness out of the shadows. … You see commercials on TV about a whole array of physical health issues, some of them very personal. And yet, we whisper about mental health issues and avoid asking too many questions.”
Spencer hopes mental health issues become more public, which could lessen the embarrassment often associated with these challenges. She is encouraged by the White House’s initiative.
“I take away that the White House is taking a positive step in bringing in a diverse group of people touched by mental illness,” Spencer said. “That group is the group that can really solve some of the problems around mental illness.”
She’s ready for another trip to Pennsylvania Avenue.
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