One Chatham forum tackles issues of mental health access and reform in Chatham

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By Molly Weisner and Ari Sen

On Wednesday, students, advocates and lawmakers came together in Pittsboro to discuss mental health at the One Chatham forum.

The event followed the release of The ChatCast, a podcast series launched as a partnership between the Chatham News + Record and Our Chatham to bring mental health to the forefront of community conversation. 

About 60 people attended the event to listen to the conversation.

Since the podcast’s release, The ChatCast has been streamed and/or downloaded over 500 times. 

This month’s forum brought together five expert panelists on various issues of mental health in adolescents: 

  • Chatham Charter School sophomore Abigail Holmes,
  • Wilder Horner, social work supervisor with the Chatham County Department of Social Services,
  • George Greger-Holt, community outreach coordinator of Chatham Drug Free,
  • Tracy Fowler, executive director of student support services with Chatham County Schools, and
  • Rep. Robert Reives II, North Carolina House of Representatives. 
Photo by Charlotte Ririe/Our Chatham

Chatham News + Record’s Zachary Horner and Adrianne Cleven from Our Chatham moderated the event, which started with an evaluation of mental health resources in Chatham. 

“For a long time we had a public mental health system that I thought worked pretty well …” Greger-Holt said. “Somewhere along the line we lost our way in terms of being able to provide support for people suffering from mental illness.”

The problem in creating a network of care for mental health is that Chatham is so large and spread out, Gregor-Holt said. He mentioned that services are more available in Pittsboro and North Chatham, but Bear Creek, Siler City and other rural areas are more difficult to reach.

““I remember the day when there were lots of in-home therapists,” Wilder Horner said. “That’s not something that happens a lot anymore.”

But there was no question among panelists that the need is pressing. 

Fowler spoke about statistics among adolescents in Chatham. A youth-risk behavior survey was conducted in 2019, but the results are not yet available. Data from 2017, however, indicates that 36.6 percent of high school students felt so depressed for two or more days that they felt unable to do daily tasks.

At the national level, according to the Economist, the country’s suicide rate has jumped for each of the past 13 years – with rural communities, much like a large swath of Chatham, getting hit the hardest.

Holmes said that at the school level, counselors and friends are not always the most helpful. Holmes started giving mental health presentations at her school to bring more awareness.

But outside of school, cost is a significant barrier to access. 

Photo by Charlotte Ririe/Our Chatham

“We’ve had a governmental shift in policy in how we treat mental health,” Reives said. “I think the shift has been the ‘Why should we have to pay for this?’ Part of what puts you in a bad place is not being able to pay for things.”

Besides money being a challenge, the panelists all agreed that stigma prevented people from getting the help they need. Instead of turning to medical professionals or therapists, some teens turn to the internet, where suicide, depression and anxiety are sometimes romanticized, Holmes said.

Academic pressure also plays a role in creating atmospheres of competition where asking for help isn’t addressed.

Fowler said the Second Step program in Chatham schools aims to help youth cope with difficult emotions and stress mindfulness in academic programs.

“We started looking at ways in which we can address things in a more restorative way, looking at alternatives to a suspension model,” Fowler said. “Continuing to do training with teachers, helping them understand trauma.”

With mass shootings and violence at school often being lumped into the mental health debate, panelists said that it’s important to remember that most people with mental illness are not violent. 

And while there are programs at school in the works to help connect kids to mental health resources, support in home life can sometimes be lacking. Politicization of personal relationships and identity politics is a factor that affects youth today in ways it didn’t in the past, Reives said.

“The divisiveness has gotten so acrimonious,” Reives said. “When I was in college, when I was in law school, I didn’t identify myself by politics. If that kind of acrimony is reaching children now, imagine what it will be 10 years from now. I would love to see lawmakers act more mature.”

Also, with politics, lawmakers have made cuts to mental-health and social-services in many states as they seek ways to slash budget expenses. North Carolina appears to be an exception in some of these areas, but not all.

Wilder Horner went on to add that mental illness can affect anyone, but having one stable adult in a youth’s life who cares about how they are doing can make a real difference. 

Communication between parents, school leaders, community partners and youth is crucial to developing strategies that not only look good on paper but actually reach those who need them.

For the next One Chatham event, follow us on Twitter and Facebook for future announcements. You can stream The ChatCast podcast on several platforms here

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