Sunday, January 29, 2023

‘We’re here to listen’: Newton reaches out with forum on mental health awareness


The series is taking place at a time when mental health related issues are seeing record levels worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a 25-percent global increase in the prevalence of anxiety and depression. And nearly one in five adults lives with mental illness, according to data from 2020 collected by the National Institute of Mental Health.

In a survey from Mass General Brigham and Newton-Wellesley Hospital, mental health was a concern most frequently mentioned and found to particularly affect low-income, elderly, and immigrant residents.

Among the several community partners in attendance were Riverside Community Care, Families for Depression Awareness, and the Resilience Project at Newton-Wellesley Hospital, and the suicide prevention nonprofit Samaritans.

“It’s really always been important to me to be working in organizations that really meet people’s immediate needs, and this organization certainly does that,” said Kathy Marchi(cq), chief executive officer and president of Samaritans.

According to the group’s website, Samaritans has been working to bring suicide prevention services to Massachusetts residents for 47 years. For instance, in March, they launched “Hey Sam,” a youth-to-youth text and call line meant to pair kids with trained peers who might better understand what they’re going through.

“The program is to pair youth with other youth on the helpline because we know that young people want to talk to their friends, they want to talk to someone their own age,” she said.

McKenzie Shane, a 5th-grade teacher at Williams Elementary School who attended the event, said the stigma associated with mental health is a significant barrier for students who need help.

“Events like this can really help normalize it, especially in students’ lives who may feel embarrassed that there’s something wrong with them,” Shane said. “And these events help educators like myself be able to have that conversation and feel more comfortable.”

Another attendee, Catalina Folch, a Newton resident and therapist specializing in children and adolescents, said families are integral to the mental health of students.

“A lot of the students that I work with are struggling with depression and crisis,” Folch said. “Now that I know this information, and I can share it with the parents, the parents will be able to support the children better.”

According to the Mass General survey, participants reported “mental health and substance use services are insufficient to meet demand.” Participants in the survey also reported most mental health providers do not accept MassHealth, leading to lower income residents suffering from mental illness to go undiagnosed or untreated.

In January 2021, a man was shot and killed by police after he had allegedly threatened a candy store owner and attacked officers with a knife and a fire extinguisher. Officials later discovered the man, Michael Conlon, 28, was afflicted with mental health issues.

“It was in my neighborhood, so it was devastating,” said Jhilam Biswas, director of the Psychiatry, Law and Society Program and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Biswas, who worked at Bridgewater State Hospital for six years and specializes in forensic psychiatry, said stigmatization and a lack of awareness concerning mental health leads to individuals not receiving the care they need until “they’re in a crisis” and “so sick they don’t know they need help.”

“Currently, the way the mental health system is, it’s difficult for providers to keep track of how patients are doing if they’re not coming to appointments, or if they’re off medications,” Biswas said.

The other events scheduled as part of the series include an online Crisis Intervention Panel June 1 and a Teens and Parents seminar on June 15 at Newton North High School.

Addressing the problem of awareness and community involvement with regards to mental health concerns, Kennedy said one way people can combat mental illness within their families or communities is to attend events and talk to others.

“Talk to your neighbors, talk to your family,” she said. “Having professionals [is] good, but also just having that sense of community and support within your own family.”

Cici Yu contributed to the reporting of this story. Walker Armstrong can be reached at

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