02/19/2013 10:57 am ET Updated Apr 21, 2013

We Need More Than Dialogue About Mental Illness

It seems everyone is coming out of the woodwork to talk about the need for dialogue about mental illness. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius recently mentioned that the White House will be starting conversations about this issue in the next few weeks. Robert De Niro received a lot of attention for crying in an interview with Katie Couric about bipolar disorder. Even the NRA is suddenly up for talking about the need to help people with mental illnesses.

I have spent half of my life as a mental health advocate, and it's really refreshing to see how many people understand the need to talk about these issues. However, these problems won't be changed with conversation. They will be changed with action.

This is 2013, not 1913. We know what the problems are. Twenty-five percent of adults suffer a diagnosable mental disorder each year, and mental health problems affect 20 percent of young people. Military personnel have the highest rate of suicides in history, and the suicide rate in veterans has passed the civilian population. Millions of people don't have access to the mental health care they need. College-aged shooters are carrying out some of the worst atrocities of our time. Report after report, headline after headline details the endless need for mental health in our nation.

And we don't need to turn on the news to see this pain. We see it in our friends and families. We watch helplessly as someone spirals out of control and lands in a hospital or grave. We do everything we can to get a loved one treatment, medication, therapy or whatever we can to help them. An endless amount of people whisper to others about diagnoses and specifics of behavior they thought they would never have to witness.

We keep repeating patterns of identifying what's wrong and planning to talk about it. I am tired of the talking. Let's take action.

I applaud the recent efforts of Obamacare making mental health treatment more accessible, the Mental Health Parity Act and the White House's plan to train more providers to offer help to young people. However, leaders continuously say there is a need to increase services while ignoring the fact that approximately 66 percent of young people with a mental illness aren't seeking treatment. The dialogue about these issues shouldn't be happening just on Capitol Hill, it should be encouraged to be happening in homes everywhere in the country through powerful outreach campaigns.

When extreme symptoms of bipolar disorder hit me at age 16, my family, friends and teachers were completely unprepared. I was fortunate to have a network of people who cared about me, but they honestly had no idea what to do. They stood by, hoping for the best. I was a successful student and president of my class when I attempted to take my own life during my senior year. We had awareness campaigns for every other issue when I was in high school, but none for mental health.

If we really want to make a difference, then it's time to create and implement educational programs to change the way this youngest generation and those who care about them cope.

Instead of putting armed guards in schools, let's arm kids and families with the information they need to better understand mental health. Studies show that the most critical time for people to develop their self-identity is during adolescence. Not enough is being done to help them through that process. By educating young people on the development of their brains, the realities of mental illnesses and what to do when we see someone suffering, we can open an environment for people to express themselves and get the help they need.

Dialogue in Washington can lead to task forces, laws and endless reports. What this country really needs right now is a forward thinking preventative program that takes action to intervene in peoples' lives before their problems get too big for them or others to handle.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.