Berkshire groups combat stigma, raise awareness of mental illness


May is Mental Health Awareness Month and several Berkshire County organizations are lobbying for people to take a more positive and proactive approach toward taking care of their mind and emotional well-being.

"There's still a lot of stigma around mental illness, which is why we do our annual mental health walk at the Pittsfield Third Thursdays event. It's our way of educating people, and showing them that we are part of the community," said Brenda Carpenter, executive director for the Berkshire County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

"People are very supportive of cancer patients and survivors, so why are they not as supportive of people with mental illnesses," said Carpenter.

She recalled being at a recent training program at which a presenter challenged people's perceptions. "With a person with a mental illness, we say to them, ‘You are bipolar' but we don't go up to someone and say, ‘You are breast cancer,' yet both situations deal with sick people," she said. "If the community could stop and think about this, maybe it would change perceptions and help more people get better."

NAMI reports that one in four adults, approximately 61.5 million Americans, experience some form of mental illness in a given year, be it depression, anxiety, eating disorders, seasonal affective disorder, among others. One in 17 adults, or 13.6 million Americans, live with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder.

Like most diseases or viruses, mental illness does not discriminate by age. Approximately 20 percent of youths, ages 13 to 18, experience severe mental disorders in a given year, though symptoms can occur at a younger age.

Also, like other maladies, mental illness is treatable, and support and care are available.

"So many symptoms and factors that cause mental health issues are preventable," said Bear McHugh, suicide prevention project coordinator for the Berkshire Area Health Education Center.

This month, agencies like Berkshire Area Health Education Center (AHEC), NAMI Berkshire County, Berkshire Health Systems, Berkshire Coalition for Suicide Prevention, Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, the Austen Riggs Center and other organizations are working together and independently to offer public programs and events to help all people become more aware of not only identifying a mental illness, but getting themselves or loved ones the care they might need.

Last Friday, Berkshire AHEC presented a free workshop called "First Aid for Youth Mental Health" at the Holiday Inn in North Adams. McHugh said youth are an important population to reach out to early on to help teach them coping skills and build resilience.

"It's important to make sure that kids have supports and mentors in place," said Peggy Morse of the Berkshire Coalition for Suicide Prevention.

McHugh, Morse and Carpenter said there are more specific issues that challenge the mental health and well being of people based on demographics like age, race, socioeconomic status and also things like career, family life and history.

Carpenter said NAMI Berkshire County is looking for more people surviving and coping with mental illness to share their stories and work as presenters and advocate for awareness.

"It all comes back to education," she said, "and those personal stories help make the point."

Berkshire County Mental Health Awareness Month events and programs:

Ongoing: NAMI Berkshire County is looking for presenters for its "In Our Own Voice" program. Candidates are people coping with mental illness who, with support, share their stories for various programs, educational events and public forums. Call (413) 443-1666 or email for more information.

Thursday: Berkshire Citizens for Peace and Justice will present a program on the efforts of the Brien Center to address violence in regard to substance abuse.

This program, which is free and open to the public, will be led by Paul Hickling, division director for adult and family Services, and Denise Galvagni, division director for community services; 7:30 p.m., Unitarian/Universalist Church, 175 Wendell Ave., Pittsfield.

Friday: Dr. Lucy LaFarge will present the annual Yasmin Roberts Memorial Lecture, "On Depth and Deepening in Psychoanalysis," for mental health professionals. The at 8 p.m. program will be held in the large conference room at the Austen Riggs Center, 25 Main St., Stockbridge. Continuing education credits are available. For more information, call Alicia Zaludova at (413) 931-5230.

Thursday, May 15: "Minds Matter," the ninth annual walk for mental health will be held as part of Pittsfield's Third Thursday on May 15. Registration will begin at 5 p.m. in front of Berkshire Bank on North Street. Opening remarks will be at 5:15 and the mile-long walk down North Street and back will begin at 5:30. Learn more at or call (413) 443-1666.

May 15 registration deadline: The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Berkshire County and the Department of Psychiatry at Berkshire Medical Center will present a free public forum titled, "Anxiety & Stress in Today's Youth and How to Help." The forum, which will run from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 21, will be held in the Bishop Clap Conference Room I at Berkshire Medical Center, 725 North St., Pittsfield (across the street from Warner/Jones Building -- former Bright Horizons Day Care site).

The keynote speaker will be educational consultant and professional certified life coach, Lawrence Carroll. A panel presentation will follow and include: Dr. Brenda Butler, Bear McHugh of Berkshire AHEC, The Brien Center's Jim Mucia and school adjustment counselor Michelle Bienvenue.

RSVP to NAMI, (413) 443-1666 or Space is limited.

May 16 and 17: The Austen Riggs Center will host the third Riggs-Yale Conference on Partnerships, Parenting, and Family Systems. The theme will be "Early Adversity and Developmental Psychopathology: Research and Clinical Perspectives." This conference is designed for clinicians. Learn more at

May 22: Railroad Street Youth Project and its Mentoring Program will host its first Community Forum on Mentoring for businesses, individuals, parents, and youth interested in learning more about mentoring and its benefits. The event will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. in the community room at Berkshire South Regional Community Center in Great Barrington. Food and beverages provided. For more information, contact Alex Lenski at

May 23 nomination deadline: Each year the NAMI Berkshire County recognizes community members and professionals who continue to advocate for those affected by mental illness at their annual meeting in July. The award nomination categories are:

n "Citizen of the Year": Given to someone in the community who has shown an understanding of mental illnesses and advocates for the improvement in treatment of those who live with mental illnesses and their caregivers.

n The Silver Ribbon: Recognizes a professional in the mental health field whose work has shown a commitment to the care of those whose lives are affected by mental illness.

n "Member of the Year" recognizes a member as someone who contributes enthusiastically to NAMI and its activities in support of its mission to help families whose lives are affected by mental illnesses.

To nominate someone, please submit their name and a statement of why you feel they deserve to be recognized by May 23rd to or mail to NAMI BC, 333 East St., Room 417, Pittsfield, MA 01201.

May 30: A conference titled, "Youth at Risk and What You Can Do About It: Teaching Resilience and Fostering Mentorship for Adolescents and Young Adults" will be held from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the Crowne Plaza in Pittsfield. Dr. Robert Brooks will serve as the keynote speaker. Registration is required. The cost is $40, and includes program materials, breakfast and lunch. For more information or to register, contact Sarah Perrone at (413) 447-2987 or


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