Summit addresses mental health challenges

Overcoming mental health and substance abuse issues in local communities seems a daunting undertaking — but offering a helping hand and a shoulder to lean on may be a good place to start.

At least that’s what a group of educators and faith-based leaders asserted at a recent mental health summit at Pasco-Hernando State College’s (PHSC) Porter Campus at Wiregrass Ranch, in Wesley Chapel.

Pasco-Hernando State College hosted a mental health summit on Feb. 18 at its Porter Campus in Wesley Chapel. It featured a panel discussion between educators and faith leaders in the community. (Kevin Weiss)

The state college’s Bridging Faith and Mental Health Communities Summit brought together dozens of faith-based leaders, public and private clinical agencies, students, educators and community members. They discussed ongoing problems and solutions on topics such as depression, suicide and substance abuse, wellness and recovery.

A plenary panel discussion addressed those topics head-on.

University of South Florida philosophy and religious studies professor Garrett Potts tried to pinpoint the root of mental health issues.

He suggested that depression and addiction have been exacerbated because there’s “a crisis of meaning” and “a loss of hope” in society and culture today.

And, as a result, he said, people have turned to drugs and alcohol, as a coping mechanism.

The panelist advised that if you think someone may be suffering from substance abuse or a mental health crisis, empathy and guidance without judgement can go a long way.

“We have to be able to sort of lay our cards on the table and say, ‘Hey, I’m with you,’” Potts said.

“Try at all costs to avoid the shame cycle that our fellow addicts and sufferers are already stuck in. They don’t need any more shame than they’re already placing on themselves.”

He added, “A lot of times, what you hear with individuals who are struggling with suicide, is they’ve found themselves in a place where they’re isolated. Either something they’re struggling with is stigmatized to the point that they don’t feel loved, or they feel like no one around them cares about them or can help them.”

Another panelist, Dr. Eddie Williams, director of PHSC’s behavioral health department, pointed out those dealing with depression and suicide “often disengage from everybody” in their personal and social life, and in the workplace.

Williams underscored the importance of reaching out before a particular mental illness worsens.

A decreased functioning in everyday life and a general feeling of sadness are some warning signs to watch out for, he said.

“We need to make sure that person gets reconnected,” Williams said, “to let them know that they’re loved and understood.”

He added: “Don’t take no for an answer, if you start to see someone disengaging from life. Sometimes, it just takes that one act of courage and that could save someone’s life.”

Williams also observed those who’ve successfully recovered from substance abuse or mental illness must “give it back and try to help someone else reach that level of recovery.”

Williams added: “You’ve got to have that support from people who’ve been in similar situations.”

Pastor Doug Zipperer, of Shady Hills’ United Methodist Church, called for more fellowship and outreach groups.

He mentioned organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous do a good job of bringing people together and helping each other, so they’re not fighting mental health and addiction battles alone.

Zipperer put it like this: “The words and encouragement and counsel of a real close friend is probably more lasting than hours of clinical counseling or the professional help of somebody they don’t trust.”

Another panelist, Taiwan Simmons, the co-founder of Inside Reach Ministries in Wesley Chapel, suggested there’s not a one-size-fits-all answer to people struggling with mental health issues and substance abuse.

Offering care and affection to loved ones may not be enough, Simmons said.

Still, the panelist said there’s a responsibility to reach out to those dealing with those troubles — even in the face of getting rejected by that person.

“We have people who are hurting,” he said. “They need our prayer, they need our support, they need our attention, they need our encouragement.

“You have to be engaged and you have to empower not just yourself, but the people around you,” he said.

The panel also included Imam Hassan Sultan, CEO of the Muslim Connection; Ryan Morris, PHSC student government president; and, John Mitten, Hernando County commissioner and PHSC board trustee.

Along with the panel discussion, the event also included breakout sessions focused on suicide, and substance abuse awareness and prevention.

In addition to the state college, community partners involved in the summit included the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Pasco Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention, BayCare Behavioral Health – Community Health Activation Team (CHAT), American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Take Stock in Children, James A. Haley Veterans Hospital, Moffitt Cancer Center and Pasco Aware.

Published February 27, 2019

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