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Second Mental Health Forum Draws Supporters

Whatever the illness, support from family, friends, and the community lays the foundation for a successful recovery, noted speakers at the second Mental Health Forum hosted at the University of the Virgin Islands.

About 75 people from the community, including doctors, social workers, those seeking help, and people with just an interest, all gathered Tuesday morning at the UVI for the forum hosted by Clear Blue Sky and UVI’s Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities.

Speakers provided information about different types of mental illnesses, noting how people can recognize them and assist. Spectators applauded and cheered as patients from Clear Blue Sky, sometimes referred to as the clubhouse, took the stand to talk about their personal experiences.

“We have all of the human needs and desires that most people take for granted,” said Leia Benjamin who attends Clear Blue Sky. “We are treated as if we’ve done something wrong if we seek love.”

Benjamin and other speakers were concerned about the everlasting stigma that surrounds mental illness. They emphasized that people with these challenges are capable of leading completely normal lives with jobs, homes, and families. All they need is support to believe in themselves, said Margaret Spencer of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Dr. Lori Thompson from Schneider Regional Medical Center discussed steps the community can take in being a part of the support system. She encouraged those with a mental illness to establish a recovery team and to not only include friends and family, but to reach out to employers, counselors, and others they trust.

“Just because someone is diagnosed with a mental illness does not mean they don’t deserve respect and recognition,” Thompson said. “Several people in the audience have helped friends and peers get the treatment and classes they need.”

In the Virgin Islands alone, about 6,000 people are affected by mental illnesses, while one-third of the population in the United States suffers, stated retired doctor, Leighman Lu. Mental illness does not distinguish between age, gender, or race, he said, so “education is key to understanding.”

“We’re always behind catching up,” explained executive director of Clear Blue Sky, Arlene Monaghan, as she noted that the community and government are not taking steps to educate the public.

Several people in the audience asked what they could do to help friends, neighbors, and family members to get treatment. Spectators were also concerned about options for the territory’s homeless, who are often in their situation because they have not received treatment and counseling for mental illness.

“Many are rejected by family, rejected by the community and rejected by friends. It’s not just a stigma, but a rejection. It’s a big problem and that’s why we’re here today,” said Lu.

Clear Blue Sky recently moved from Monaghan’s former home, which she gave up for the clubhouse, to the Villa Fairview near All Saints Cathedral School. The new building is in need of renovations, and the nearly 40 patients are already getting their hands dirty in the larger indoor and outdoor space. Now they need help from the community.

“We want input on the challenges ahead,” said Clear Blue Sky secretary Luz Moron. “Our members belong as contributing adults. We provide members with the encouragement and assistance they need. We are all equals.”

Clear Blue Sky is always accepting donations, but currently they need shelves, employers who can work with the organization to offer jobs to patients, and someone with a boat to volunteer to help a patient earn experience towards a captain’s license. If interested in assisting, please call 774-9688.

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