By Tessa Raebeck
Over 26 percent of American adults suffer from a mental illness in a given year, according to estimates by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). That figure translates to roughly 57 million Americans who are affected by one or more mental disorders at any given time.
A panel of local experts addressed these alarming statistics and their relevance to the East End community at Southampton Hospital Tuesday. Moderated by pastoral counselor Richard Lawless, the discussion was part of Mental Illness Awareness Week, a national campaign established by Congress in 1990 to combat the stigma associated with mental illness through education. The community conversation, presented by the East End Clinical Connection and Southampton Hospital, included experts from a variety of fields who looked at the strengths and limitations of the mental health field on the East End.
“We don’t need an act of Congress; we just need to continue good conversation,” said panelist Michael Stoltz, executive director of the Clubhouse of Suffolk County. “Taking these facts, taking these realities, we want to use all 52 weeks of the year to have more conversations.”
The panel of five experts collectively emphasized the need for improved services, treatment and awareness. Several panelists commented on the stigma associated with identifying mental illnesses and the resultant hesitation of suffering Americans to seek help both personally and professionally, as well as the importance of early intervention and prevention.
Although mental illnesses affect individuals across all demographics and regions, the transience of the East End community can promote mental illness, experts said. While most are believed to have biological causes, some mental illnesses are fostered by a person’s environment and experiences, according to NIMH. The seasonality and economic inequality of the South Fork can produce an environment that acts as a catalyst for mental disorders, several experts said.
Dr. Lois Favre, superintendent for the Bridgehampton School District, spoke of the “stress issues associated with the transience that seems to happen here on the South Fork.” We are in the midst of a “mental health crisis,” with 10 to 20 percent of adolescents suffering from some type of mental illness and only a fifth of those affected seeking help, she said.
Dr. Favre said many teachers report feeling ill-equipped to respond to the needs of students suffering from mental illness and that the challenge in schools is the entire system’s lack of coherence.
“There’s a need to build a system that works with what we already have,” she said. “A system where there’s mutual respect between the hospitals, the police, the schools — we all kind of speak the same language, we believe each other when we say there’s a problem.”
“The services are simply not available,” said Virginia St. John, a social worker and director of a Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) program in East Hampton. “We will get calls from community members who have been waiting for months and months for services and we cannot answer them. One of the casualties of that is the school system, they really have nowhere to refer anyone.”
“We’re looking at a real lack of political will right now to get things done,” she continued, saying that despite three suicides on the South Fork in the past few years, staffing and services for mental health were cut extensively by East Hampton Town in recent years and funding has not increased “by one cent” in the 2014 budget.
Difficulty in accessing services is “multiplied 10 times over for the Hispanic community,” said social worker Alexandra Feely of The Retreat and the East Hampton Healthcare Center.
“They already have that stigma of being undocumented, having to live under the radar, always in fear,” she said. “Levels of fear and high anxiety can sometimes precipitate or aggravate problems of mental illness for the bilingual community.”
The first thing Feely tells her clients is that their brain is like any other organ in the sense that it can be treated and they can recover.
“People recover from serious mental illnesses and people recover through a whole lot of pathways,” Stoltz agreed, citing yoga, meditation, music, drama and the arts as pathways associated with recovery.
Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (LICADD) Clinical Director Steven Chassman spoke of the need to recognize such forms of treatment, rather than relying solely on medication, incarceration and other single-pronged approaches.
“The greatest provider of mental health services in Suffolk County is the Suffolk County jail,” said Chassman. “We’ve dealt with [substance abuse] the last 40 years one dimensionally — incarceration, incarceration, incarceration.”
“There’s no ready place to go, many consumers say the treatment so to speak, is worse than the illness,” agreed Stoltz.
“The world has changed exponentially in the last 20 years,” Chassman continued. “The world has sped up … we are inundated with the digital and technological revolution and young people are coming up in an age where there is no stop gap on this. Maybe there’s no coincidence that compiling the data from 1999 to 2009, the National Institute of Drug Use has officially declared that we’re in the midst of a national epidemic from prescription medication.”
Chassman said a person dies from prescription drug overdose every 19 minutes in the U.S. and that 370 fatal drug overdoses occurred in Nassau County and Suffolk County last year.
“These statistics seem to be going up, unfortunately,” he said. “When resources and when dollars and when treatment allocations are going down.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that in 2010, one in 20 people in the U.S. (age 12 or older) reported having used prescription painkillers for nonmedical reasons in the past year.
“That comes with a very pressure-filled and a very American society,” said Chassman. “We’re very industrious, perhaps so industrious that we haven’t had the chance for our cognitive coping skills to catch up.”
“Xanax is not the treatment for anxiety disorders or panic disorders, it’s the medication,” said Chassman of the anti-anxiety drug. “Learning to address and identify and work with or accept our fears is very much the treatment. Medication is not the answer; people need to be engaged.”
An audience member who identified herself as a parent of a 24-year-old with mental illness reiterated the importance of community conversation.
“I think one reason that a lot of things aren’t able to get passed through voting and whatnot is because people don’t even know about it,” she said. “You recognize in your kid that there’s something but they don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. I’d give anything to have known what to do and I think we’ve got to start there.”