Forum gives chance for open talk on mental health

Norwich — Attorney Kathleen Flaherty believes she has a responsibility to talk openly about living with bipolar disorder, an illness she was first hospitalized for in 1990 while a student at Harvard.

"I pretty much thought my life was over," said Flaherty, now a staff attorney with Connecticut Legal Aid in Hartford and an advocate for those with mental illness.

Flaherty, the first of four speakers in a forum about mental health, got the professional help and peer support she needed, and now tells her story "because I can," even appearing on public service advertisements about people living with disabilities.

"Things change when people talk," she said. "I'm thrilled we're having this conversation."

Attended by more than 100 people, the forum is one in a series about mental health sponsored by Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network, an affiliate along with The William W. Backus Hospital of Hartford HealthCare.

Author Wally Lamb, whose novels and other works have explored various manifestations of mental illness, said his interest in the topic began while he was growing up in Norwich when Norwich State Hospital was still open.

"I remember being fascinated but a little scared by that place," he said.

Many years later at a family wake, he said, he learned that his grandfather had been committed to the psychiatric hospital for four or five years. But decades later, that fact was still a source of shame for his uncle, the only one of his grandfather's 11 children still alive when Lamb learned about it. When Lamb wrote about his grandfather, he said, his uncle went to all the bookshops around his home in Florida to buy every copy he could find of the essay collection it was part of.

Lamb said he became further convinced of the need for greater awareness and honesty about mental illness 15 years ago, when he began volunteering as a writing teacher at York Correctional Institution in East Lyme. More than half of the women imprisoned there, he said, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. A 2004 collection of stories by some of the inmates he worked with, "Can't Keep It To Myself," is referenced in the title of the forum, "Can't Keep It to Ourselves: A Community Dialogue on Mental Health."

Many of the women at York, he said, are "living tragedies of what happens when early intervention doesn't come."

One means of getting more people with mental illnesses into treatment sooner is through mental health first-aid training, said panelist Chris Erskine, who teaches the course at Natchaug Hospital in Mansfield. The training teaches people how to recognize when people in crisis, how and when to intervene and how to provide support, he said.

"It's critically important that we intervene early and get these individuals the help they need," he said. "It's critical to catch these illnesses as quickly as possible so they don't spiral out of control and people don't lose their jobs or drop out of school" or become alienated from their families and friends.

For families of those with mental illnesses, being able to share their experiences with others is key to being able to cope, said panelist Jim Sorensen, former president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness's Southeastern Connecticut Chapter. At regular group meetings, he said, parents, siblings and spouses of people with mental illness help one another deal with the challenges of advocating for their loved ones and dealing with the emotional toll.

"What we try to convey is that there is help, and there is hope," he said. When his son was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 2003, Sorensen said, "it was an overwhelming feeling of anger, grief and loss. All the dreams you hold up for your children are gone."

But he learned, he said, to "develop new dreams," and has helped organize the annual "Breaking the Silence about Mental Illness" essay contest at Ledyard High School.

After reading an excerpt from one student's essay about his own mental illness and hospitalization, Sorensen said, "that kind of honesty and courage inspires me."

One of the main problems for families, he said, is trying to get private insurance coverage for residential treatment.

"It's very, very difficult for families to find their way through that maze," he said.

Flaherty said there are many barriers that prevent people from getting the treatment they need, including lack of insurance, shortages of providers and difficulty getting transportation to appointments.

"There is help out there, but the help is limited," she said.

j.benson@theday.com

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