Calling the human brain “the only uncharted territory on earth,” Vice President Joe Biden said Wednesday night that the United States is “on the cusp” of major changes in how mental illness is diagnosed and treated.

“It truly is amazing what we don’t know and astounding what we might learn,” Biden said during the inaugural gala of the Kennedy Forum on mental health at the John F. Kennedy Library .

The forum, which includes a one-day conference Thursday, marked the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy’s signing of a law that funded mental health centers throughout the United States.

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Research into the genetic causes of mental illness and pending federal rules meant to push insurers to provide equal coverage of physical and mental health services will improve understanding of disorders such as schizophrenia and depression, and provide better access to care, Biden said.

He also called provisions of the Affordable Care Act that list treatment for mental illness and substance use disorders as essential health benefits that insurers must pay for.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius also lauded the federal health law as a boon for people suffering from mental illness.

Her appearance at the gala was criticized this week by congressional Republicans who wanted her to appear before a House committee hearing Thursday to answer questions about how the Obama administration has so badly botched the launch of a federal website that people in more than 30 states must use to buy subsidized health plans.

Some, including a fellow Kansan, Senator Pat Roberts, have called on Sebelius to resign over the mishandling of the online insurance marketplace and the rollout of the Affordable Care Act.

“What a great room to be in tonight, for all kinds of reasons,” Sebelius said. “I can tell you it’s good for my mental health.”

She noted that the large majority of people with substance abuse problems do not seek treatment, nor do 60 percent of people with mental illness. The Affordable Care Act will make it easier to get care by providing coverage, she said.

“The new law is more than a website,” she said.

“It is an opportunity for more Americans to get mental and physical health services,” she added.

The event was spearheaded by Patrick Kennedy, son of the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy and former representative for Rhode Island, who has been working with the Obama administration on the issue of mental health parity.

Kennedy said the effort to change and improve mental health care in the United States is “the civil rights movement of our time.”

“The tragedy is not in mental illness,” he said. “It’s in not treating mental illness.”