President Obama launched a White House conference on mental health this morning with a surprisingly down-to-earth message. He ticked off some sobering statistics about people suffering from psychiatric illness—for instance, we are losing 22 veterans a day to suicide—and he talked about federal initiatives to do a better job helping them. But his message was mostly to individuals, especially vets, who might be listening to his voice: “Just as you would take care of yourself and those around you in battle, you’ve gotta do the same thing off the battlefield. You’re not alone. You are surrounded by people who will support you and care for you.”

He sounded the themes repeated throughout the first session: to anyone out there who is struggling, please seek help. If you know someone who is struggling, please help them get care. Mental illness is treatable. There is hope.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius also addressed the challenge of making it more comfortable for people suffering from psychiatric illness—and here we would add parents of children with psychiatric illness—to ask for help. “Mental health needs to be an issue talked about openly and freely without fear of being judged,” she said.

Glenn Close, one of five professionals and activists on the day’s opening panel, said some interesting things about stigma. People think there’s no longer stigma surrounding mental illness, she said, since most people understand that mental illness is in fact an illness like any other. “But the truth is stigma has hardly budged.” As a result there is a surprising amount that we don’t know about people we work with and are friends with—even people in our families. She first realized this, she said, when her sister called her up one day and said, “I need help because I can’t stop thinking about killing myself.” Close was stunned. “I am ashamed at what I didn’t know about my own sister,” she said.

For Close, that was the beginning of her commitment, through her organization, Bring Change 2 Mind, to getting people to tell their stories about living with mental illness. “The way to change somebody’s attitude is to have them actually meet someone and hear their story,” she said.

I’m with Close on that. It’s pretty hard to imagine that people could continue to dismiss children’s problems or blame them on parents, as so many do, if you’d met the families I’ve gotten to know at the Child Mind Institute.