A daunting lineup was seated in the front of the room.
There was RI Health Insurance Commissioner Marie Ganim; Rebecca Boss, Director of the RI Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Development Disabilities & Hospitals; Dr. Nicole Alexander Scott, Director of the RI Department of Health; Kasim Yarn, RI Director of Veterans Affairs; and Tom Coderre, senior advisor to the Office of the Governor. Serving as facilitator was Rose Jones.
All addressed a gathering of more than 50 people Monday evening at Thrive Behavioral Health, formally the Kent Center in Warwick, at the kickoff to a series of public conversations to raise awareness about mental health, addiction and available treatment.
Jones set the tenor of the discussion. She talked about her own personal struggle with the death of her 13-month-old son 20 years ago and how she sought help to deal with that tragedy.
“We need to make it okay to talk about mental health…it’s okay to say you’re not okay,” she said.
Yarn told of his son who died not even a year ago of a drug overdose, how he had gotten the call and how the family and first responders had tried to save him. He said only by coming together “can we start to unlock” the means to deal with the issues of mental health and addiction.
“We’ve got to use each other to lean on and to hear these stories,” he said.
Coderre told his own story and how, at the age of 30 with a good job and as a state Senator, “everything about him and his life looked perfect, but on the inside he was tortured.” He told how his abuse of alcohol led to drugs, loss of friends and at one point the desire to live. He said the most important thing to take away from his personal story is “that’s it’s not unique” and that thousands of Rhode Islanders have similar stories.
The public conversations, seen as a step to breaking down mental health barriers is an initiative set in motion following Governor Gina Raimondo’s executive order to reaffirm and expand the state’s commitment to those with mental illness and substance abuse disorders.
More than one of those stories was told Monday, but none galvanized the group more than that of Trevor DiFilippo.
As the lineup of speakers turned to listen to the audience, DiFilippo stood in the back of the room.
“Is it all right if I come up there,” he asked. A patient at Thrive enrolled in the Healthy Transitions program, DiFilippo, 26, didn’t know where he should stand then edged to one end of the speakers.
His leg shook nervously, but in a strong voice he told of how he had been an honor student and an athlete and then one day awoke to feel sick to his stomach. He passed it off as just a bug, but he didn’t feel good. He was overtaken by anxiety.
“My whole life was turned upside down,” he said. He said he thought of committing suicide, however, his mother stayed by him.
“If it wasn’t for her I don’t think I would be here today,” he said. At the age of 17 personnel at Butler Hospital diagnosed him as bipolar. That was not the end of his issues, however. DiFilippo was arrested for having stolen goods and sent to the ACI. There he had a manic aggressive attack and was placed in maximum security in a cell where he had only boxer shorts, no water and a toilet that wouldn’t flush.
“I hope I’m not taking too long,” DiFilippo interjected. He was urged to continue. He talked briefly of the Healthy Transitions Program and how today he is living in a studio apartment, taking care of things himself and even has a dog. The mention of a dog was greeted with applause.
Following the session, DiFilippo said he has named the beagle-mix Brady after the Patriots quarterback.
“Brady can’t stop wagging when I get home,” he said smiling. DiFilippo is working at a pizza store and training to deliver. DiFilippo’s story resounded. It affirmed Alexander-Scott’s observation that conversations “normalize who we are” and how we “need to uplift each other and be judgment free.”
Boss talked of a new 24/7 phone triage center that will link callers with professional help from those dealing with mental health and addiction issues. She expects the service will start in November. She talked of the need for more resources for prevention and early diagnosis.
In response to the audience, she also spoke of the need to intervene before people become involved with the criminal justice system.
A member of the Thrive-run Hillsgrove House outlined the “dual recovery” of patients participating in the 12 steps of AA addiction recovery while undergoing mental health treatment. Boss and members of the panel were interested in learning more.
The panel also heard from a mother who called on “educating the educators” so that teachers can identify early symptoms of mental illness and bring that to the attention of parents and authorities.
The mother called on educators “as first responders.”
The next conversation is planned for Woonsocket. A date and location have not been finalized.