As Surgeon General I have focused on identifying and addressing some of our Nation’s pressing unmet health needs and disparities in health and health care. These efforts have dealt with issues such as mental health (especially children’s mental health), suicide, oral health, and obesity. By learning more about these issues and focusing the country’s attention on them, the process has begun to develop broad support for specific steps that can be taken to improve them.
Over the last year, we undertook an effort to examine the health of persons with mental retardation, especially the health disparities they suffer. It became apparent that as our system of care for those with mental retardation evolved, our attention to their health lessened. Even a quick glimpse at the health status of persons with mental retardation, both children and adults, reveals glaring deficiencies that must be addressed. To better understand, we sought to listen, not just to the experts in this field, but directly to individuals with mental retardation, to their family members, and to their other caregivers—those who live and struggle every day with the wide spectrum of issues that affect the health of these individuals.
This dedicated community can teach us a great deal. They can help us all to better understand and face their unmet needs, which are significant and all too common. Perhaps the greatest lesson is that as a society we have not really been listening and paying attention to them. We have been too likely to expect others, without mental retardation, to speak to their needs. We have found it too easy to ignore even their most obvious and common health conditions. Just as important, we have not found ways to empower them to improve and protect their own health. No one who cares would suggest that this is acceptable. Nothing, however, will follow from this effort unless we help our society better understand and appreciate that these persons are an integral part of the American people, with much to give if they, too, enjoy proper health.
Each person reading this report has an opportunity to learn more about these individuals’ lives and needs, and to work together to improve their health. As the Report of the Surgeon General’s Conference on Health Disparities and Mental Retardation, held in December 2001, this national Blueprint identifies goals and action steps set forth by this community as its priority needs.
The goals and action steps should be considered for implementation at all levels, in all sectors of our society, from single individuals acting in their own communities to the largest national organizations or government agencies acting on state- and nation-wide issues. Each of us must accept the responsibility to do our part to improve the health of all persons with mental retardation.
Reports don’t have arms and legs. Like many others, this report will just sit on shelves unless we turn it into action. It is important to listen to those affected to learn what needs to be done, but to listen and not respond with determined action will only heighten the injustice this community has too long endured. I ask everyone reading this report to do your part to achieve our noble objective of improving the health of all persons with mental retardation. If we do, together we will make a significant difference in the lives of these important individuals.
David Satcher, M.D., Ph.D.