By GAIL LOWE
WAKEFIELD — Drive past a home where the shades are always drawn and you might think the homeowner is trying to keep out sunlight that would fade the furniture. This, however, is not necessarily the case.
It could be that the person who lives there is so depressed they can’t bear to look beyond the walls of their home. In fact, the drawn curtains or shades become another wall to block the outside world.
On Tuesday night, about a dozen interested people turned out for an event hosted by the Wakefield-Lynnfield United Methodist Church on Vernon Street to hear Dr. Laurence Heckscher of the New England Pastoral Institute speak about mental illness — including depression — and its impact on society.
Because mental disorders are so prevalent in society and there is a strong push locally to tackle the issue, Rev. Glenn Mortimer and members of the Wakefield-Lynnfield United Methodist Church decided to do make it a year-long mission project as part of the 150th anniversary of the church’s founding.
Rev. Mortimer said that part of the church’s mission is to eliminate the taboo of mental illness by providing education and support from the church to people who suffer or know someone who suffers.
Heckscher, a New Hampshire licensed pastoral psychotherapist at the doctoral level and Massachusetts licensed mental health counselor, provided statistics concerning mental health. She also described symptoms to watch for and spoke about the different forms of mental disorders and what can be done to help those who are ill.
Among those attending was Catherine Dhingra, coordinator of the Wakefield Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition. Dhingra works alongside Wakefield Police Chief Rick Smith and the Board of Health to help stamp out substance abuse at the local level. Substance abuse often accompanies mental illness, according to Heckscher.
Depression, bipolar disorder and even schizophrenia are all mental illnesses and they are rampant in the United States. As one commenter stated, mental illness affects us all.
During her talk, Heckscher provided a snapshot of statistics from NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) :
• Forty million people in the United States experience some form of mental disorder every year
• Ten million suffer from a serious mental illness
• The age group most likely to experience major depression is between 15 and 24
• Twenty-five percent of homeless people suffer from a severe mental illness and the absence of a safety net plays a significant role.
In many instances, people do not seek help because of the stigma still firmly attached to having a mental disorder despite the efforts of professionals to educate the public.
People with mental illness are often portrayed by the media as as dangerous, unpredictable and weak-willed.
Today, 50 percent of all children in America live in a household where a parent or other adult uses tobacco, drinks heavily or uses illicit drugs. Another 23.98 percent of all children live in households where parents are binge drinkers, and 12.7 percent live in households where an adult uses illicit drugs.
Heckscher elicited a response from her audience about the other various forms of addictions. Gambling, shopping, pornography, relationships, prescription medications, food and Internet addictions were among those listed.
“Some people,” said Heckscher, “have a biological disposition to addiction.”
But there are other mental disorders caused by trauma of any kind, including violence, catastrophic life experiences, physical illness, critical development challenges, world events, tragic loss, natural disasters, devastating disappointments and the death of a loved one.
Treating symptoms of mental health disorders is, for the most part, tricky because the person who suffers is often in denial about what others around them know to be true. Family members can join in the denial, not wanting to believe that mental illness could affect someone in their family. Mental illness happens to other people, not them. And the reason for this, said Heckscher, is the stigma that continues to be attached to mental disorders, even into the 21st century.
With a better understanding of what causes mental illness, many of which stem from the disruption of brain chemicals, should come the elimination of stigma but the problem persists to the point that health insurance companies place restrictive caps on mental health benefits and, to complicate matters further, the stigma also discourages many from seeking help in the first place.
Heckscher pointed out that less than 33 percent of adults and 50 percent of children with a diagnosable mental disorder receive any level of treatment in any one year.
To make matters worse, deinstitutionalization that took place in the late 1980s and 1990s moved many people with serious mental illnesses from hospitals to homeless shelters, streets, jails and prisons.
She also said that something people living with family members who suffer from addiction or mental illness need to remember:
• They did not cause the problem
• They cannot cure it or control it
• They can care for themselves
• They can communicate their feelings
• They can make healthy choices
• They can celebrate themselves.
In her closing remarks, Heckscher commented, “Though pastoral prayer does not heal mental illness, prayer and medication are helpful to sustain a person — but it’s not enough.”
Rev. Mortimer said the church will continue its mental health mission project throughout the year, which will include a mental health fair in September. The public will be invited to obtain information and ask questions.
“I was extremely pleased with how Dr. Heckscher communicated on matters concerning a difficult subject in layman’s terms,” he said, adding that there were things in her presentation people had not thought of previously that would help open doors and cast mental illness in a different light.
“We need to rid mental illness of the stigma surrounding it,” he said. “The church is a small entity but it’s our attempt to address a vital subject. We are a safe and non-threatening place to talk about these matters and educate people.”
After Heckscher’s presentation, Mortimer said one woman approached him to say thank you for opening up dialogue about such an important subject.
The church’s mental health mission project will continue on Tuesday, April 7 at 7 p.m. when Dr. Jeremy Stewart from McLean Hospital in Belmont will speak on anxiety and depression — symptoms, causes and treatment available.
As was the case on Tuesday night, a free will offering will be taken with all proceeds going toward the mission project for further community outreach.