Guest Commentary: Continuing the conversation

by Margaret Creeth MA

Colleen Fawcett LCSW

Lauren Hughes LCSW

Catherine Pierce LCSW

Wilton Social Services

On April 23, 10 Wilton organizations hosted a Mental Health Fair featuring a screening of Joey Pantoliano’s documentary No Kidding! Me 2! in Wilton High School’s Little Theater. The evening focused on raising awareness of mental health services in our area, de-stigmatizing mental illness and recognizing the hope that comes with diagnosis and treatment. There were more than 30 service providers in attendance sharing their expertise and information with the public.

Isabel Zayas, president of Wilton High School’s newest club, LET’S (Let’s Erase the Stigma), introduced master of ceremonies Gillian Neff, Channel 12 News anchor and 12-On-Health reporter. The Little Theater was packed. The 250 people in attendance were witness to the evening’s message that mental illness is a disease, a disorder, but unlike other diseases or disorders those afflicted are often blamed, scolded and even mocked. We need to foster an atmosphere of respect for this group of illnesses.

Mr. Pantoliano’s self-disclosure and those of the other participants in the documentary and on the panel were moving and illustrative. Ultimately the evening was a call for action to change our perception of those with mental illness. Following the screening, panelists, all of whom have either personal experience with mental disorders or professional expertise in the treatment of mental disorders, were on hand to field questions from the standing-room-only audience.

We hope to build on the enthusiasm generated by this event with further education and continued conversation. Wilton Social Services, in conjunction with the Southwest Regional Mental Health Board, is offering an opportunity for town residents, employees, and any others with interest to participate in a two-day training program on mental health first aid. The workshop will be held on two consecutive Fridays in June (June 7 and 14) at Comstock Community Center from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Lunch will be provided. This 12-hour certification course is designed to help individuals and communities better understand mental illness and respond accordingly to those who may be experiencing distress. This is a unique opportunity and one that many other towns in our area have provided with very positive results.

As the panel discussion revealed, helping  promote respect for those suffering with mental disorders and facilitating a deeper understanding of mental health issues encourages people to seek treatment for their family members or themselves and to do so with fewer reservations. We believe many tragedies can be averted, and have already been averted, when proper treatment is found.

Panelist Dr. S. David Bernstein, a forensic psychologist, discussed the fact that most people with a mental illness are not dangerous. It is only when they are left without treatment that mental illness can progress and lead to acts of aggression which are more likely to be directed at themselves. Conversely, those receiving proper treatment are at no greater risk for becoming a threat to themselves or others than the rest of the population.

We heard from Judy Higby, parent of a child diagnosed with a mental disorder who said having a son with mental illness is a family affair and an affair that needs to be managed with the understanding that he did not seek this illness, create this illness — none of us did. She described how her family worked to establish an environment of respect and compassion and to be aware of the impact of the disorder on the siblings.

Michaela Fissel, leader of the peer-run initiative Join-Rise-BE, discussed her personal journey with a debilitating mental illness. She told a poignant story of her recovery leading to a successful personal and professional life. Joey Pantoliano reiterated the profoundly important message of his documentary — that there is no shame in acknowledging and seeking treatment for a mental illness. With treatment, those afflicted can lead a productive and fulfilling life.

This evening is just the beginning of a process where our community will continue to gain a better understanding of the issues involved and the importance of treatment. With this in mind, we encourage you to attend the upcoming workshops on Friday, June 7 and 14, on mental health first aid.

For more information or to register for the two-day workshop, please call Wilton Social Services at 203-834-6238. Registration fee is $100.