Forum examines mental health care in Framingham, battling stigma in schools

Combatting stigma against mental illness (and teaching it young), statistics about Framingham residents feeling depressed and how the city can help its underserved was discussed by a panel of mental and public health professionals Thursday night during a Community Conversation, hosted by Mayor Yvonne Spicer.

FRAMINGHAM – “Eleven years ago, our daughter showed up at our house – she knew she was home, but that’s about all she knew.”

Lawrence DeAngelo, president of the MetroWest chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), said his daughter’s “moods were swinging, she thought someone was trying to kill her (and) she had no health insurance.”

“What do we do?” he said, addressing more than a dozen mental health professionals and community members Thursday night at the Memorial Building in Framingham. “I didn’t have a clue, she didn’t have a clue.”

The forum, “Community Conversation: Mental Healthcare in Framingham,” was hosted by Mayor Yvonne Spicer and included a panel of four mental and public health professionals, including DeAngelo. At the session, participants examined mental health issues in the city, what Framingham is doing to help its residents and what changes are still needed.

Since that incident more than a decade ago, DeAngelo and his family sought help from local resources.

“Thanks to many of the service agencies here – we’re doing much better,” he said. But the stigma over mental illness continues to be “a terrible burden on people.”

“Mental health, to me, is a public health issue,” said Sam Wong, Framingham’s director of public health. Twelve years ago, he sought help for depression, considered taboo in his culture, he said.

“We don’t talk about it,” said Wong. “I have no problem telling people I might be coming down with a cold or the flu, but I’d think twice about telling people that I felt depressed.”

Institutional barriers, such as insurance not covering mental wellness, add to the stigma and make it more difficult for people to seek help.

According to 2016 data from the Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance System, a federal series of health-related telephone surveys that collect data about health-related risks, shared by Wong:

  • About 3% of Framingham adults reported feeling sad, blue or depressed for more than 15 days in the last 30 days (compared to the state average of 8%)
  • About 6.5% of Framingham adults reported having poor mental health, which was about 0.5% higher than what was reported throughout MetroWest (and slightly lower than the statewide average of 9%)

As for adolescents, about 33% of those in Framingham reported life being “very stressful,” about 4% lower than across MetroWest, according to the 2016 MetroWest Adolescent Health Survey. Also according to that survey:

  • About 23% of Framingham adolescents said they felt sad or helpless, about 6% higher than what was reported across MetroWest (but lower than the U.S. average at 30%)
  • About 4% of Framingham adolescents reported having attempted suicide, compared to about 3% across MetroWest (and about 7% statewide and 8% throughout the U.S.)

Wong said updated statistics – with 2018 data – should be released soon.

When Eliza Williamson, director of Community Education and Training at NAMI, said she decided to take her life a few years ago, she awoke after a three-week coma and later visited a psychiatric hospital. She felt “mortified, pretty angry and embarrassed,” but admits “it was never about wanting to be dead.”

“It was that I could not fathom having to live months and years of life… if I had to feel this way,” said Williamson, who participates in outreach programs with NAMI, having helped and educated 16,000 people across the state. “I had no clue I didn’t have to feel this bad.”

“By a dramatic margin,” the most effective way to reduce stigma is to hear from other people’s lived experiences, she said.

Framingham school psychologist Luciana Castrillon, whom her students refer to as “The Brain Lady,” said there’s a need to reach out and inform parents, especially those whose main language isn’t English. Castrillon, who is originally from Brazil, said the schools are teaching students to not feel ashamed for needing help, and says science can help demystify and destigmatize doing so.

“What I see is progress toward understanding that mental health conditions are brain disorders,” she said. Students are learning to understand the reasons for their emotions as they would with physical ailments, like broken bones or stomach aches.

MetroWest Referral Line

Since the MetroWest Referral Line was launched in July 2017, the service has received more than 1,300 calls/requests, said Anne Pelletier Parker, executive director of Behavioral Health Partners and senior vice president at Advocates in Framingham. More than 400 calls are from Framingham residents.

While the service reaches 24 cities and towns throughout MetroWest, in Framingham alone:

  • About 63% of callers were identified as youth, 34% adults and 3% elders
  • Thirty percent of callers spoke a language other than English
  • For an appointment, 57% of callers waited less than four weeks to get one
  • Ninety-seven percent said they would recommend the service to family or friends