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Conference Illuminates Mental Illness

Goal: Reduce Stigma, Increase Treatment

Ann & Lu

The sad truth is that 60 percent of people with mental illness in the United States never receive any treatment.

Yet for those who do receive care, the recovery rate is very high – more than 90 percent.

These are among the many realities shared with more than 450 people who attended the second Faith Communities and Mental Illness Conference in Tucson, presented by Interfaith Community Services and funded by the David and Lura Lovell Foundation and the Community Partnership of Southern Arizona.

National and local experts at the day-long forum offered insights and inspiration to reduce the stigma of mental illness and empower faith communities to be places of support for those dealing with mental health issues. The inaugural conference was in 2012, following the tragic shooting at Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford’s “Congress on Your Corner’ event in Tucson that killed six and wounded 13 by a young man with untreated mental illness.

The personal stories about mental health and recovery are powerful, insightful and raw.

Presenters and audience alike explored the challenges, conditions, options for treatment – and the potential for a brighter future for individuals and families dealing with mental illness. This forum was for people who are passionate about mental health.

“Surveys show that 40 percent of people affected by a mental health issue will first turn to their faith leaders for support and assistance,” said Bonnie Kampa, CEO of Interfaith Community Services.

Connections to Local Faith Communities

That’s why ICS was the right nonprofit organization to host this conference. “We have the ability to bring people together. We have the connections for reaching the faith communities that no other group could have done,” Bonnie said.

ICS began in 1985 as a partnership between six congregations. Since then it has expanded to nearly 80 faith communities throughout the Tucson metro region.

“What prompted the first mental illness conference was our relationship with Lu Lovell,” Bonnie said. “We were at lunch and started talking about what role ICS could take to help reduce the stigma of mental illness and educate people about mental illness. And that’s how the seed of an idea for a possible conference came about,” Bonnie said.

“We did our homework. We looked nationally to see if there was anything similar. Not many as were professional as what we did.”

Both Lu and her daughter Ann Lovell were deeply involved with planning the conferences and participated in the ongoing series of lunch-and-learn sessions on mental health that followed. “With the Lovell Foundation support we were able to notch it up and become very professional.”

Powerful, Personal Testimonials

They knew the first conference hit home by the audience feedback at the end of the day. “People said they were so grateful to know they were not in a vacuum by themselves – and that there are community resources available. Others were eager to learn more about how to support and become an advocate for someone who has mental health issues. The organizations with tables at the resource fair were amazed that people were so hungry for information,” Bonnie said.

And they welcomed the opportunity to tell their own experiences – from personal mental illness and recovery to a mother whose mentally ill son is now incarcerated in prison.

That first conference with the Lovell Foundation as presenting sponsor led to another collaboration – between ICS and CPSA, which helped sponsor the second conference and fund a fulltime mental health specialist at ICS.

Veda Kowalski provides outreach to the faith communities to teach mental health first aid. How do you have a conversation with someone who is suicidal? What are about the signs and symptoms of mental health? What resources are available? How do you support a person in crisis? “We want to reduce the stigma of mental illness. We want people to start thinking differently and talking differently about mental illness,” she said.

Kowalski introduced Terrie M. Williams, one of the keynote speakers at the second conference. Williams is a national mental health advocate, licensed social worker and author of “Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting.” She detailed her own intense personal experience of what mental illness looks like, feels alike and sounds like.

Debilitating Depression

On depression she said, “More than 14.8 million Americans over the age of 18 suffer from depression in any given year. African Americans are nearly twice as likely to suffer from depression – and the least likely to get help. By 2020 the World Health Organization estimates that depression will be the second leading cause of death after heart disease.”

She said, “Be gentle with people. Don’t ask ‘what’s wrong with you?’ Instead ask ‘what happened to you?’ That invites the story.

“Strong is letting your tears flow and telling the truth. We are not meant to hold our pain inside of us.”

Rabbi Simkha Y. Weintraub, another keynote speaker, studied traditional Jewish perspectives on depression and offered helpful approaches to address this difficult dimension of life:

“Depression is the blood-sworn enemy. Run from it as you would run from death itself…. Life constricts or expands in relation to one’s courage…. We are a grief averse society – yet ungrieved losses are obstacles to being joyous…. It is through rejoicing that illnesses can be cured…. Cultivate a positive attitude – with music, humor, objects of beauty.”

Weintraub is a licensed social worker and rabbinic director of the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in New York City, one of the nation’s premier voluntary mental health and social services agency. He edited the book “Healing of Soul, Healing of Body.”

Diseases of the Brain Can Be Treated

“In our society we make it a disgrace to have a brain that’s not functioning well,” said the third keynote speaker, Nancy Kehoe. “Diseases of the brain can be treated.”

The former nun witnessed firsthand the experiences of people with a mental illness in hospitals and prisons – ice baths, restraints, shock treatments, solitary confinement. Yet she found “very often people with mental illness have healthy spirits.” They shared so much with her that it changed her life. “I owe them everything,” she said. Today she is a licensed psychologist and author of “Wrestling with Our Inner Angels: Faith, Mental Illness and the Journey to Wholeness.”

Steve Nagle is a training specialist at CPSA and led the mental health first aid session. He said that stigma and denial keep people from seeking treatment.

It’s important to acknowledge that mental states span the spectrum – from occasional depression to panic attacks, post-traumatic stress, suicidal thoughts, age-related dementia, hallucinations and full-blown debilitating mental illness.

“Less than half of one percent has schizophrenia or a broken mind,” Nagle said.

When talking to someone in crisis, it’s important to show empathy with statements like “that must be so hard” or “I can understand why you’d feel that way.” Listen non-judgmentally to his or her story.

“We have a great crisis system,” Nagel said. But after the crisis has passed, patients have difficulty getting follow-up appointments. If they have to wait months to get their prescriptions filled or other needed care, they end up in crisis again.

With treatment, more than 90 percent recover. “Recovery is the process in which people are able to live, work, learn and participate fully in their community,” he said.