A packed room listened to stories of personal struggles and strength on Tuesday at the fourth Mental Health Awareness Conference held by Mount Wachusett Community College and the SHINE Initiative.
In a continued effort to raise awareness about mental health and wellness, the two groups brought together four speakers to discuss their personal experiences with mental health and addiction. Each year, approximately one in five Americans suffer from some mental illness such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia and the conference is designed to shine a light on mental illness.
During his welcome address, Mount Wachusett Community College President James Vander Hooven, Ed.D., recognized the school’s students in the audience, asking them to stand. This group included over 100 nursing students. He told the gathered students that this year’s graduation will be moving for him because of the cumulative good that MWCC’s graduates will be doing in their communities.
“You will be saving lives and I hope you recognize that. I hope you recognize and value that as much as I do,” he said.
President Vander Hooven then talked about his experience realizing that asking for help is a sign of strength and not weakness. He said that while he has had the benefit of supportive family and friends, he cannot control the amount of support those at the school have amongst their families, friends or communities. But what he can do, he said, is pledge to support those in the MWCC community as they seek the assistance they need.
“It took me a long time to get to a point where I would consistently seek help when I experienced my own symptoms of depression,” said President Vander Hooven. “I know that what we experience does not define us.”
This year’s keynote speaker was writer and director Paul Dalio who talked about his experience managing bipolar and how it influenced his film “Touched with Fire”. He spoke about the difficulty in managing bipolar and the importance of letting people know that even though they have been diagnosed and life will change, with the right care they will be able to tap into their creativity while avoiding the detrimental cycle of mania.
“You can be stable and you can have the creativity and the fire. And I am definitely more stable than I was. I’m much more creative now than I was before bipolar,” said Dalio to Paul Richard, executive director of the SHINE Initiative, during a question and answer session. “Part of it is you live through the depth of life and it enriches your perspective.”
Dalio’s feature film, “Touched with Fire,” stars Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby and has been acclaimed by critic Stephen Holden of the New York Times as “an extraordinarily sensitive, nonjudgmental exploration of bipolar disorder and creativity.” It draws inspiration from Dalio’s bipolar diagnosis and experiences dealing with his illness and artistic nature. Dalio has been outspoken about his hospitalization and treatment while being a voice for the contributions of people diagnosed as bipolar.
In addition to Dalio, a trio of speakers discussed everything from living with mental illness, new treatments for addiction and the governmental challenges in helping to break the cycle of addiction.
Dr. Judson Brewer, Director of Research at the Center for Mindfulness at UMass Medical School in Worcester talked about his mindfulness research and how he has turned this towards helping people break the cycles of cigarette smoking and emotional eating. By having people be mindful of why they are being urged to do something such as smoking, it is possible to have them break the cycle as they examine that the behavior will not solve their actual concerns, he said.
“There’s an urge for the pleasant to continue and the unpleasant to go away. That leads to a behavior,” said Dr. Brewer. “If we can understand mechanistically what is happening, we can work with things … and drive a wedge between the urge to act and the action.”
Dr. Barrie Baker, Director of Clinical Activities at Tufts Health Public Plans, discussed her own struggles with what has been classified as bipolar even though she has never had a manic episode. She has been lucky to have support when she needed it, she said, and it is important to extend that support to others going through mental health challenges.
“We as medical professionals can’t even talk about it amongst ourselves,” she said explaining that we all need to do our part to break the stigma against mental illness. “I’m damn good at my job. I’m really good but no one would have given me the chance. You can function. You can do your job. You can be a productive member of society.”
Massachusetts State Senator for Worcester & Middlesex Districts Jennifer Flanagan spoke about the ongoing struggle to get Massachusetts residents treatment for addiction, specifically focusing on the fight against opioids, heroin and fentanyl. These drugs are ripping through our communities, she said, and it often takes people over five times through rehab to finally get clean. She addressed the numerous nursing students from Mount Wachusett in attendance, urging them to work with the addicts they will encounter as they undertake the long journey to sobriety.
“You are all going to see it. And you are probably not going to know what to do about it. But stick with them,” Flanagan said.
Following the presentation, Mount Wachusett Community College nursing students participated in QPR (question, persuade, refer) suicide prevention training.