By Raymond P. Diamond

The gymnasium at King Middle School, on Deering Avenue in Portland, was packed on May 25 as parents, youth, and other community members from Portland’s BIPOC and immigrant communities gathered to engage in tough discussions about mental health and mental illness. Topics included generational trauma (traumas and trauma responses inherited from one generation to another); middle and high schoolers and their relationships with mental health and illness; and individualized, firsthand trauma. Portland Empowered, an advocacy and education-centered nonprofit organization, convened the event. Interpretation was available for Arabic, French, Lingala, Portuguese, Somali, and Swahili speakers.

Laura Ligouri, Executive Director of Mindbridge, a not-for-profit organization focused on the intersection of neuroscience, psychology, and human rights work, delivered the keynote address. She talked about staggering global inequities relating to access to treatment of mental health disorders – but she also sounded a note of hope, referring to a “massive cultural shift globally,” in relation to more openness toward mental health services.

Ligouri discussed the importance of prevention and treatment, and assessed the collateral costs to society of untreated mental health disorders, which she said add up to $5 trillion (USD) worldwide, when considering productivity loss, the impact of untreated disorders on others, and the necessity of providing emergency healthcare services. She said the costs of providing prevention and treatment services would be much lower – $2.5 trillion, or half the cost. 

Seleipiri Akobo, a healthcare professional originally from Nigeria, was the second speaker, and  noted that mental illness is more than “just” illness, in that it impacts one’s entire well-being, emotionally, socially, and physically as well. She described substance use – also often referred to as addiction – as a form of self-medication, and traced its roots to genetics, exposure to stress, experience with trauma, personality traits, and even brain chemistry.

Akobo stated that the nature of a family’s response matters when their young one struggles with symptoms of mental illness, and that professional help is necessary. Treatment plans require individualization and must be multi-faceted. Akobo encouraged therapeutic, pharmaceutical, and community treatments, referring to cognitive and dialectical behavioral therapies, positive reinforcement and providing rewards as incentives, and prescribed medication all as options. She also noted that exercise, mindfulness, gardening, or journaling can all be part of an individualized, multi-faceted, community-oriented treatment plan.

“As Africans, we feel like we don’t want to talk about it, but we cannot pray it away. We cannot wish it away.” What we can do instead, is to assist in healthy habit development, life skill training, and encouraging children’s interests and hobbies.”

– Seleipiri Akobo

The symposium concluded with presentations by students, including Casco Bay High School senior, DR, who chose to remain anonymous, but who shared a series of written and recorded thoughts and concerns by students, such as: “Mental illness is real and it has to be addressed,” “Try to pick up on behavioral changes [of your children],” and “Sitting down and having a conversation [can be] enough [to save a life].” 

When asked if there was one thing that DR wanted someone to take away with them from her presentation, she replied, “Talk to your kids.”