In Portsmouth: Breaking down stereotypes around mental health

State leaders host forum on mental health issues


PORTSMOUTH — Kasim Yarn, an imposing figure who can command any room he steps in, said he was taught all his life than men like him should keep their feelings to themselves.

But that went out the window when tragedy struck nearly a year ago. On Oct. 26, 2017, he received a 5:30 p.m. call from his wife: Their son Jonathan, a heroin user, was not waking up. 

The PHS student group Every Student Initiative kicked off the forum on mental health issues. Hear what students had to say by clicking here.

“Twenty-six years old — a life taken away,” the director of R.I. Veterans Affairs told an audience of about 50 during a mental health forum in the Portsmouth Middle School library Oct. 3. 

“I have never been able to talk about these kinds of things. For a guy like me — a big guy, a 25-year Navy vet — society says a man like me isn’t aloud to cry, or show a sensitive side. We have to start breaking down those stereotypes,” said Mr. Yarn. “I have big shoulders, but guess what? I’ve cried like it’s nobody’s business. Because when I see today’s youth, I see Jonathan. When I see mothers, I see my wife. Dads cry, too.”

Mr. Yarn was one of several key players in Rhode Island government who shared their own stories at the forum, part of a series of community conversations to raise awareness about mental health, addiction and the resources and treatments that are available to address them. It follows an executive order by Gov. Gina Raimondo to ensure that mental illness and physical health is on equal footing when it comes to treatment.

He was joined by Rose Jones, policy and public affairs director of the Office of Health and Human Services (HHS); Rebecca Boss, director of the R.I. Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals; and Trista Piccola, director of the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF).

“We’re here today for one reason: To help people feel comfortable with talking about mental health. This is a safe space with no judgement,” said Ashley O'Shea, director of community investments for HHS.

Mr. Yarn and the others said it’s important for everyone to share their feelings about the issues of mental health and addiction and not treat it like a taboo subject. 

It’s particularly vital, Mr. Yarn said, to set the tone for children. “We don’t want our children to turn away from us. We want them to talk to us in their time of need,” he said. “We need our youth at the table to listen to them. Not to solve their problems, but to listen.”

Ms. Jones said everyone — herself included — has “battle scars” that shouldn’t be hid from others. Twenty years ago, she lost her 13-month-old son. 

“I’m talking to you as a mom who buried her own son and went through my own depression,” said Ms. Jones, who also witnessed her best friend killed “in a twisted game of Russian roulette” when she was 15.

“Let’s keep the dialogue going,” Ms. Jones said. “It’s OK to not be OK. It’s OK to share your feelings.”

Ms. Boss said one in five adults are impacted by mental illness, including her sister, who committed suicide nine years ago. “She was found by her son on Mother’s Day, 2009,” she said.

There has to be a “systems change and we have to engage as many partners as we can,” said Ms. Boss. We need to concentrate not only on our physical health but on out mental health fitness as well, she said.

“Where’s the Fitbit that says how many times people smiled at you today?” she said.

Some steps are being taken at the state level, she said, including a 24-hour crisis center and hotline that will be in operation by next month.

Ms. Piccola said it’s important to foster a culture of understanding at DCYF on the crises faced by families in the system, whether they revolve around mental health issues, substance abuse struggles or other factors that impact children. 

“Ultimately, we have to think about and appreciate how people got there,” she said.

Obstacles to overcome

Several staff members of Newport Mental Health shared their frustrations on several obstacles they face, including the public’s unfamiliarity with available healthcare resources, a lack of funding and a dearth of outpatient services on Aquidneck Island. 

“What I see is a real absence of health literacy in this state,” a nurse with Newport Mental Health said. “Most people, including health care professionals, do not know how to access services.”

Staff members also said the organization’s 24-hour hotline, which costs $1 million annually, may have to be shut down due to the lack of outside reimbursement. (The number is 401/846-1213.)

Jamie Lehane, president and CEO of Newport Mental Health, said all 26 mental health and substance abuse outpatient providers are losing hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

“CODAC just closed their outpatient services,” he said, referring to the nonprofit, local outpatient provider for opioid treatment. “This is a crisis. People need to learn how to live life without the crutch of substances.”

Newport Mental Health, he said, lost more than $300,000 last year in order to keep its doors open for outpatient services. “The need is tremendous in our community,” Mr. Lehane said.

James Day, coordinator of the Newport Prevention Coalition, said inpatient resources are also an issue on the island.

“They’re extremely limited,” he said. “Everything’s off-island for inpatient treatment.”

He also said the R.I. Department of Education needs to be in the loop when it comes to battling the stigma of mental health. “If I have a cold, I know what to do about it,” he said. “What are we doing in building (social-)emotional literacy for our kids to even talk about (mental health issues)?”

Ms. Boss said state education officials are indeed on board and that the governor’s office is looking for increased funding for emotional wellness initiatives. “There are pockets of things going on that maybe some people are not aware of … but there needs to be more,” she said.

Ms. Jones said comments and suggestions from those who participated in the forums are being recorded and “will help shape recommendations going forward.”

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.