Thanking Those Who Have Gone the Extra Mile

veterans-day-imageOn this Veterans Day, we recognize all Vets for their service to protecting our country in peacetime and in conflict. I want to especially recognize those Veterans — such as those who work or volunteer as part of our agency’s staff and board — who have extended themselves beyond their service experiences to help others and our communities.

At the Statewide Dwyer Project conference last month, the keynoter was young Army Veteran, Andrew O’Brien, of Texas, who shared that his volunteering for service was not about patriotism but about finding a sense of purpose for himself following a childhood of horrid abuse and neglect. However, after a challenging combat experience in Iraq, while still in the service, his journey included an attempt to take his own life.

After returning to, and completing, a distinguished service career, Andrew later founded the Wysh Project ( not only to help end Veterans suicide, but building on his own experiences, to help everyone who has past experience from trauma from any source move “from trauma to triumph.”

Responding to Andrew’s talk, one recovering Dwyer Vet asserted: “We are not broken. We are strong. We saw and participated in stuff we expected but weren’t fully prepared for. We are injured, but because of our strength we can take ownership of a helping role in helping others overcome injuries and help build community.”

As we thank our Vets today for their service in uniform, let’s also thank so many who have gone the extra mile to help enrich our communities as places of caring, hope, and opportunity for all people who face adversities.

Posted in Dwyer Project, Healing, Joseph P. Dwyer Veterans Peer Support Project, PTSD, Suicide

Why we do Mental Health Awareness Week?

mha-week-2016-revised-logoThere are a myriad of health education weeks and months for so many different diseases, each with campaigns and events to promote vital information that can engender personal, social, political, and health profession activation.

Mental health awareness encompasses a huge umbrella that embraces the impact and challenges of all these diseases – plus mental illnesses, psychiatric disabilities, stress, trauma, and comorbidities with substance use and developmental disabilities – and the inevitable family distress that comes with all of these. Left without intervention – such as education, peer and family supports, rehabilitation, and medical and psychological care in any combination – any and all of these mental health challenges are associated with the social consequences of employment and income instability, poverty and dependency, family strife, homelessness, incarceration, marginalization, and suicide.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states that “published studies report that about 25% of all U.S. adults have a mental illness and that nearly 50% of U.S. adults will develop at least one mental illness during their lifetime.” There are a few other disturbing facts that we need to accept and bring to personal and public health discussion and debate:

  • Mental health problems are associated with increased occurrence of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, asthma, epilepsy, and cancer. Similarly, mental illness is associated with lower use of medical care, reduced adherence to treatment therapies for chronic diseases, and higher risks of adverse health outcomes.
  • The largest psychiatric facilities in our country, and right here on Long Island, are our municipal jails and State prisons whose inmates are disproportionately comprised of minorities who rarely have access to culturally-relevant community mental health information or services.
  • The national suicide rate among Veterans is still nearly 22 per day – despite public awareness of this national tragedy. Furthermore, the rate among Veterans who served during, or after, Vietnam (the term “peacetime” Veteran is a frequent distortion of their real experiences) is rising. This pattern also aligns with that of middle-aged men in general.
  • Around 20% of the world’s children and adolescents have mental health problems, about half of which begin before the age of 14.
  • Nearly 75% of people who access public mental health services have reported being victims of violence and/or trauma of some kind in their lifetime. People with mental health conditions are far more frequently victims rather than perpetrators of crimes.
  • 22% of people who become homeless have serious mental health problems.
  • Mental and substance use disorders are the leading cause of disability worldwide and are the second most impactful conditions affecting workplace productivity.

The more than forty events being held during Mental Health Awareness Week (, October 2nd through the 8th, are as broad as the umbrella itself and include films, conferences, walks, yoga, seminars, open houses, and more.  Attend any one activity or event and you will be sure to gain new insights that can enlighten and inspire you, your family, a friend, or a neighbor,  and perhaps enrich or even save a life of someone you care.

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Posted in CDC, Centers for Disease Control, Mental Health Awareness Week, Suicide, Veterans

When Therapy Mirrors Politics

political-anger-660x350-1460619818The passing of Labor Day signals the start of what is often called the “silly season” – the two month run-up until Election Day.  But this year, things have gotten more than “silly.”  We’re dealing with a torrent of vitriol of character assassination, fear-mongering, and a loss of any clear sense of truth. This, it seems, is where our culture has evolved both in our political discourse and in the treatment and valuation of our leaders.

I was thinking recently about a graduate school experience where I participated in a weekend of what is called “T- group” therapy. Such psychotherapy is facilitated by a distinctly hands-off leader who began the session with a brief and concise charge to the 10 participants: “This is your group. You will spend more than 20 hours together. You will need to choose how to make the most of your time together.” From there, he remained in the room but left us to our own machinations. What ensued was a marathon of highly-emotional discourse in which no one was immune from anger, conflict, sadness, and moments of what felt like hopeful and healing insights. The lack of an active leader felt at times like abandonment while at other times empowering.

Toward the end, the silent leader stated, “You have only a couple of hours remaining. You need to consider how you want your time together to conclude.” Despite some painful wounds that were opened, the group became determined to close the experience with a process of profound caring, healing, and even gratitude.

Sometimes the therapy experience really can mirror life. Our November 8th national election will inevitably be bitter. And like my T-group, we will need to find a way to conclude. Consider it our own unique American mental health conundrum:  How will we collectively heal from this two-year toxic assault on our sensibilities?

Can we take this on by ourselves? Or, will we feel like we have to depend on new leaders to make that happen?

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Posted in Healing, Politics, T-Groups

Help a Veteran neighbor this July 4th weekend: Silence the fireworks bombs

The other night I was sitting on my deck when a loud explosion shocked me in its suddenness and intensity.

The evening before, I was at an event where my friend, Patrick Donohue, was performing as a comic. Patrick is a combat Veteran who founded Project 9 Line, a non-profit that helps Veterans reintegrate back into civilian life. As part of his routine, Patrick made a joke about the “benefits” of PTSD, like scanning rapidly for danger while driving.

Patrick has been very open about his PTSD. In fact, last year he was interviewed by News 12 about how he used to find cnews 12.jpgomfort in the quietness of the basement of his house when the July 4th “explosions” would begin.

Our Veterans won’t be vocal about this issue – except, perhaps, when asked. Better to suck it up and deal with it…or make jokes about it like Patrick and his “Comedy Assault” brethren. That’s more the military way.

But PTSD is no laughing matter. It’s the signature injury of the post-9/11 wars and treatment for it is all about building coping strategies and resilience for the discomfort, the anxiety, and the depression.

In this week’s Stars and Stripes, writer Elizabeth DePompei related the experiences of one Veteran:

The first time he heard the crack of fireworks around July 4th the following year, he realized how wrong he was. Thomason, a 28-year-old Louisville native…remembers being at that first Independence Day party when a flashback was suddenly triggered. He was either playing a game or in a conversation with his wife — he can’t remember which — when someone behind him set off fireworks without warning. “When that happened, I physically just jumped and didn’t really know where I was for a minute,” he said. “I had a flashback and we had to leave, and that started to be a trend.”

Dr. Frank Dowling of Long Island Behavioral Medicine notes, “Many sights, sounds, and smells may trigger anxiety, panic attacks, or flashbacks to traumatic events from their service-related experiences.  This includes the sights, sounds, and smells – even vibrations – caused by fireworks.”

Combat Veterans have sought out “safe spaces” to avoid fireworks during the Fourth of July season, according to Marcelle Leis, Program Director of the Joseph P. Dwyer Veterans Peer Support Project. Programs like the Dwyer Project are working this holiday season to find alternative solutions, such as movie theaters, to find solitude while Americans patriotically celebrate Independence Day.

It’s a sad irony that many Veterans feel the need to relocate and isolate themselves while their family and friends enjoy a weekend that’s all about the freedoms they fought to protect.

We live in a region where there are many opportunities to enjoy professional fireworks events. Veterans with PTSD will tell you that these planned, supervised fireworks shows are less apt to trigger PTSD symptoms.

This season, can’t we spread some patriotic and neighborly goodwill and bag the loud boomers at least in our neighborhoods?

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Posted in PTSD, Veterans

Words Can Kill

StoltzAnd then there’s the guns.

Our nation grieves again for the victims of yet another mass shooting, this one the largest, most horrific scale we have experienced with guns.

As has become requisite now for these assaults on people and sensibilities, terms of terror, disaffected rage, association with hate groups, emotional disturbance, and mental illness become the focal points for public debate.

I have little professional understanding of hate; I have personal and professional understanding of mental health disorders. Here’s the connection:


When someone we care about descends into mental confusion — which often is accompanied by addiction — our attempts to engage and intervene with someone are rebuffed by the person specifically because holding onto one’s beliefs carries its own reward, despite the loss of love, caring, employment, or status. Damaging and hateful words of others are candy for denial.

True psychiatric disabilities are always preceded by episodes of decline of varying lengths. The idea that someone “suddenly snapped” is for all intents and purposes a myth. Movies and headlines embrace the “he snapped” concept because it carries more drama than the true descent associated with mental and emotional despair.

It is this period of time — before the act — that provides an enormous window of opportunity for good public policy. Waiting periods, references, reviews of police reports including for domestic violence (in this Orlando case), review of other law enforcement investigation (the FBI in this case, too), all offer opportunity at crime prevention and a sustained, multi-pronged mental health intervention.

It is awful to watch the horror of the event . . . of those who were in that nightclub followed by the grief of victims’ families.

It is even worse for people in recovery, their families, and mental health professionals because we all know that a little real education about mental distress coupled with some sensible interventions can prevent tragedy.

Denial does not close discussion. It’s the very point where education can happen.

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Posted in Gun Violence, Guns

Remembering Patty Duke (1946-2016)

IMG_0168Anna Patty Duke Pearce connected with 1,200 new friends on Mental Illness Awareness Day in 2006 — that’s what we at Clubhouse of Suffolk called our annual event back then.

Now, thanks to Anna and many of her courageous peers, we discuss “health” and “recovery” far more than we focus on illness and disability.

To this day, some of the attendees from that event tell me about their own warm, personal conversation with Anna that day and the deep meaning and inspiration they gained from her message about her own IMG_0169recovery from childhood trauma and consequent emotional and mental distress.

Anna refused to focus on illness, medication, and diagnosis; she acknowledged these but told the audience — comprised of people in recovery, their family members, advocates, and clinicians — that these did not define her. She said that stories of others similarly affected had inspired her to find her own path and her own voice and that she was now on a journey to share her story so others might also find theirs.

My wife and I got to spend a little behind-the-scenes time the evening before with Anna and her w20160329_153948onderful husband, Mike. Despite being under-the-weather, she was extremely gracious and kind. Unbelievably, she thanked me for the path I chose in my life.

The picture of her with her personal note to me has been on my desk facing me for the past 10 years.

So many others whom she spoke with that day — and thousands more in other venues — are grateful to have shared a similar, personal gift from Anna.

Message to Mike

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Posted in Bipolar Disorder, Depression, Mental Illness Awareness Day, Stigma

Be a Mental Health “First Responder”


A Mental Health First Aid training class at the Westbury School District.  (Photo Credit: Barry Sloan, Newsday)

On March 19, 2016, Newsday‘s Laura Figueroa wrote a great story about the impact of Mental Health First Aid training for first responders.  MHAW trainers have been providing Mental Health First Aid certified courses to teachers, care managers, youth and forensic workers, health and hospital “front line” staff, librarians, and more who have first-contact situations with people who may be experiencing mental and emotional distress.

As noted on its website,, Mental Health First Aid teaches participants:

  • The signs of addictions and mental illnesses
  • A 5-step action plan to assess a situation and help
  • The impact of mental and substance use disorders
  • Local resources and where to turn for help

Like its physical health First Aid counterpart, Mental Health First Aid is for everyone: non-professionals and professionals alike. It is a safety-driven process but, along the way – as participants have noted – it takes the stigma and tension out of these encounters.

The feedback has been phenomenal from attendees. MHAW and our partners at Nassau MHA are available wherever an audience of up to 30 can convene. Unfortunately, until more grant funding is available, there is a modest fee (just as there is for Certified First Aid courses), but that shouldn’t get in the way.

Join the movement. Contact Alexis Rodgers, Coordinator for Community Outreach & Education, at or call 631-471-7242 x1315 to find out more, get information about upcoming training opportunities, or to schedule a course with your organization or company.

Posted in Uncategorized
Association for Mental Health and Wellness

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