May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Throughout this month, GOOD Morning Wilton will be featuring stories focused on mental health issues, particular to Wilton. For additional information on local resources, check out GMW‘s “Wilton Mental Health Resource List: Where to Go, Who to Talk To, What’s Available in Wilton.” You can also refer to our 10 years of coverage of mental health in Wilton, here.

With May officially Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States, several local experts continue to cite open dialogue — particularly within families — as paramount to making progress in healing what continues to be a burgeoning crisis since the pandemic.

In March, several Wilton organizations came together for the first community-wide conversation in an event titled “Let’s Talk Mental Health.” The panel discussion was organized by the recently-formed (Sept. 2022) Wilton Mental Health Task Force, Wilton Public Schools and the Wilton Youth Council, and held at the Wilton/Riverbrook Regional YMCA, aimed at offering the community support, as well as encouraging more open dialogues on the topic.

Organizers billed the discussion as “the first step in raising awareness and identifying areas of need during a time when we know mental health challenges are on the rise.” They brought together representatives from the the Wilton Public Schools, Wilton Social Services, Wilton Youth Council, the Wilton Police Department, Kids in Crisis, National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) Southwest CT, Silver Hill Hospital, and Mountainside Treatment Center.

And ‘discussion’ was the operative word.

“You’re not protecting your children by not talking about it,” Vanessa Elias, panelist and cofounder of the Wilton Mental Health Task Force. “You need to have an open, honest communication from a very young age.”

Elias was on the panel also representing NAMI Southwest CT. “The second we start talking, people share their stories,” she said, noting that bringing sensitive topics into the light, such as suicide, doesn’t cause them to happen or put ideas into people’s heads.

“There is no individual who is not affected in some way by this.”

Dr. Andrew Gerber, president and medical director at Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, was the keynote speaker. He credited Wilton and the organizations for coming together to make the discussion happen out in the open, especially to normalize it.

Dr. Andrew Gerber, left, at the Mental Health Community Conversation on March 3, 2023. Credit: screenshot / Mental Health Community Conversation Recording

“Issues around mental illness and addiction are not rare. They’re hard to talk about. There’s enormous stigma around it, but there is no family, there is no individual who is not affected in some way or other by these issues,” Gerber said at the start of his talk.

He pointed to several things exacerbating the mental health crisis, including the legalization of cannabis, social media, and profit-hungry insurance companies that avoid paying appropriately for mental health treatment.

“There is no way to sustain high-quality care and take insurance,” he said, explaining that for-profit insurance companies encourage training more low-cost mental health professionals, but don’t give proper coverage for higher-level professionals.

“There is not a shortage [of providers],” he said, “but what there is a shortage of, is the number that will take insurance … The rates being offered by the insurance companies are so low (that) we’ve struggled.”

Gerber called on people to reach out to elected officials to have legislation passed to hold the companies accountable, noting some class-action suits underway against insurance companies relating to mental-health coverage.

“There needs to be regulation,” he said. “There needs to be accountability with the insurance to make sure that they are paying for high-quality care for individuals.”

The Impact of Cannabis

Gerber also spoke about the lesser-known danger of cannabis use, in some cases, leading to psychosis in some individuals — and he emphasized how teens are at a much higher risk.

Particularly with the never-before-seen potency of the products now being sold legally, Gerber said the possibility that some people can experience psychotic breaks from cannabis is very real.

“The consequences for young people and their brains is tremendous … In some subsets of young people, cannabis turns into mental illness,” he said.

While he concedes that it’s too late to turn the tide on legalization, he said there are still opportunities to combat some of the marketing, which is often geared toward young consumers.

“We’ve got to talk about this and we’ve got to figure out how to protect our young people,” Gerber said.

The point was underscored by Anthony Nave, clinical director at Mountainside, a treatment center for addiction and mental health with a location in Wilton. Nave pointed out that mental health issues and substance use and abuse are closely linked.

“Substance use and mental health impacts the brain similarly,” he said, describing them as cohorts.

“They feed on each other,” he said, with things like cannabis use fostering things like anxiety and depression in the long run. “They are progressive of each other.”

Gerber said that as time passes, someone who is susceptible to cannabis-induced psychosis will get worse.

“The longer you wait, the more psychotic episodes they have, the harder it is to treat and the more likely this is going to turn into a lifelong illness,” he said.

“Our whole mental health system really has to gear up to treat (this) … No matter what we do we’re going to be seeing an increase in the number of psychoses in young people,” he said.

Eliminating the Stigma

Part of the discussion centered on the general social stigma around mental illness and how to work toward dispelling it. Panelists talked about modeling openness on issues of mental health at home as part of that effort, allowing children to see that it’s okay to shine light on these personal topics.

“The stigma is an onion,” said Marie Demasi, a Wilton resident who is grief educator and an advocate for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “There are all these layers.”

She shared about losing her brother to suicide at a young age, and the slow process of her family’s challenge in owning the event and learning to talk openly about it.

“We have to be open and honest and just start talking … The more we start talking, that stigma’s going to go further down,” she said.

In tandem with the desire to bring these challenges into the light, two audience members spoke passionately about Wilton’s need to assuage the pressure put upon young people in terms of achievement, which they both said was severely impacting mental health.

“You may know I’m a state senator, but I’m talking to you as a Wilton mother,” said Ceci Maher, who represents District 26 and has raised three children during her 35 years in town.

She shared how hard it was for her personally to talk to anyone on the day her daughter received rejections from colleges, as the culture of achievement in town often imparts messages of shame and failure for entire families.

While she applauded the public and private resources available, Maher said ultimately the town needs to build community in order to model a viable, functioning system for today’s young people.

“It’s part of the modeling for our kids to come together as a community and talk together, not just listening as experts … That’s the modeling our kids need because they’re on their phones. They’re not talking to each other,” she said.

“Don’t just leave here and know you have resources …” said Maher, who is also a licensed social worker. “Talk about the things you’re afraid of and the things that you feel you are lacking … You will help them, along with these other resources.”

Lori Fields, executive director of Trackside Teen Center, also shared from the audience about creating a culture on a group level that encourages open communication and acceptance.

“What blocks us and creates illness more than anything else is the way that we feel about ourselves,” she said, emphasizing that pressure needs to be taken off the current youth generation.

“What do we do as a community to offer situations to our kids so that they don’t feel so stressed out? … I think this is the conversation that needs to be had as parents,” Fields said.

Panelists acknowledged that parents and other adult individuals have challenges to face, whether themselves or by association with those close to them who are experiencing struggles with mental illness.

“Our isolation, our epidemic of loneliness, is something that so many are struggling with,” Elias said. “You are not alone.”

Sarah Heath, director of Wilton Social Services, invited anyone facing challenges to contact her office.

“We can meet with anybody that’s going through a hard time,” she said, offering referrals and, in some cases, help in defraying costs.

“We have lots of resources,” she said.

Others involved in the panel discussion included Deputy Police Chief Robert Cipolla; Kim Zemo, the Safe School Climate Coordinator for Wilton Public Schools; Wilton Youth Council Executive Director Chandra Ring; Denise Qualey, the managing director at Kids in Crisis; and Wilton Schools Superintendent Dr. Kevin Smith.

A video of the talk is available for viewing online.

Correction: The article was updated to include Wilton Public Schools and Wilton Youth Council as organizers of the panel discussion.