(CNN) — In closing remarks at the White House’s National Conference on Mental Health Monday, Vice President Joe Biden delivered an emotional plea to those struggling with mental illness and their families.
“Let’s use this moment to send a message to tens of millions of Americans especially the young people and the parents of young people all over this country,” Biden said, speaking quietly. “There is nothing, nothing to be ashamed of if you are struggling with mental issues or if your child is or your spouse or your friend. It’s okay. It’s okay to talk about it. It’s okay to ask for help. It is okay to acknowledge that it is frightening.”
The vice president spoke from personal experience, detailing the treatment he received during two craniotomies as a younger man and the steep odds for survival he faced. He thanked the medical professionals in the audience for doing “God’s work,” and in a brief moment of levity, Biden joked, “Doctors allow you to live, nurses make you want to live.”
But he quickly got serious again as he spoke about his college roommate Don, who struggled with his son’s mental illness, and confided in Biden about how tenuous the situation felt.
“I feel like Johnny is on the end of a string,” Biden quoted his friend as saying, using a pseudonym for the son. “This is the metaphor that has stuck with me ever sine he said it. He is on the end of a string and he is out there in space and I am afraid. Joe, I am afraid. I am afraid if I tug it too hard the string will break and I will lose him forever. Forever. That is how a hell of a lot of people feel.”
Earlier in the day, President Barack Obama kicked off the conference in the East Room, saying he hoped the event would elevate the conversation on mental health to a national level by “bringing mental illness out of the shadows.”
“There should be no shame in discussing or seeking help for treatable illnesses that affect too many people that we love,” the president said. “We’ve got to get rid of that embarrassment. We’ve got to get rid of that stigma. Too many Americans who struggle with mental health illnesses are suffering in silence rather than seeking help.”
The day-long event included remarks by several members of the president’s Cabinet, as well as activists and celebrities Glenn Close and Bradley Cooper.
Cooper told those in attendance that he became a mental health advocate only after playing a man struggling with bipolar disorder in the film “Silver Linings Playbook.”
“It was really as if a veil had been lifted,” Cooper said. “I realized that people that I knew, people that I loved and cared about, they were coping with this in silence.”
Close helped found the Bring Change 2 Mind campaign, which works against mental health discrimination. Her sister, Jessie, lives with bipolar disorder, and her nephew has schizoaffective disorder.
The White House described the event as a step toward fulfilling the president’s promise to explore the relationship between mental illness and gun violence.
“I want to be absolutely clear the overwhelming majority of people who suffer from mental illnesses are not violent,” Obama said in his opening remarks, adding that there are also many perfectly healthy people who still resort to violence. “But we also know that most suicides each year involve someone with a mental health or substance abuse disorder and in some cases when a condition goes untreated it can lead to tragedy on a larger scale.”
The conference comes nearly five months after the president issued an executive action to “launch a national dialogue” led by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and Education Secretary Arne Duncan on mental health as part of his 23 proposals to target gun violence.
The conference featured remarks by Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki on his agency’s efforts to address high rates of mental illness amongst military veterans. As part of those efforts, the president announced that the VA would be holding more summits like the one held at the White House to help veterans feel more comfortable seeking treatment.
“They are partnering with 24 communities in nine states to help reduce wait time for veterans seeking mental healthcare and there they have met their goal of hiring 1600 new mental health providers,” Obama said. “Which means this summer they are going to hold more than 150 summits like this one in communities all across the country so every one of our service members and veterans understand, just like you take care of yourselves and others on the battlefield, you got to do the same thing off the battlefield.”
At the conference, the White House commended efforts in the private sector to reduce the stigma of mental health disorders, and Sebelius moderated a panel focused on negative attitudes about mental illness.
Duncan hosted a session designed to show off innovative campaigns that raise awareness about mental health issues.
For steps already taken, the White House points to the Affordable Care Act, which the White House says expands mental health and substance abuse disorder benefits for 62 million Americans. The Department of Veterans Affairs, meanwhile, says it has hired 1,600 new mental health providers and started 24 pilot projects in nine states that help veterans access mental health services.
CNN’s Ashley Killough and Adam Aigner-Treworgy contributed to this report.
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