Mental Health Topics Discussed at Forum

At Madison Elementary School, counselor Jessica Laslo said her students’ No. 1 barrier to receiving mental health help is often their parents.

Getting parents to sign the necessary paperwork to allow their children to get help often doesn’t happen or takes too long, she said.

”Many of our children are living with mental illness in their lives not because they suffer from it, but because of the circumstances they do not choose to live in. Many students at Madison live with a person who suffers with some sort of mental illness or chemical dependency or an abuse problem,” Laslo said. ”The stress that brings to their lives may not make that child mentally ill, but it certainly causes them to suffer.”

Laslo was a panelist during the Greater Wheeling National Alliance for the Mentally Ill’s ”Speaking of Mental Illness” seminar held Tuesday at Wheeling Park’s White Palace. The seminar included an afternoon and evening session with separate panelists.

Motivational speaker Melissa Hopely of Philadelphia spoke about her struggles with depression and obsessive compulsive disorder during both shifts.

Laslo said Madison Elementary has about 275 students in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade. She said many students come from single-parent homes and many parents are in jail.

”The biggest challenge we face is getting children enrolled in mental health programs and keeping them enrolled long enough for a program to have an impact on their life,” she said.

Laslo noted Madison since January has its own school-based mental health center to allow children to receive group or one-on-one counseling while at the school.

Other afternoon panelists included Wheeling Police Chief Shawn Schwertfeger; Marilyn Brady, Northwood Health Systems; Sheli Bernstein-Goff, associate professor of social work, West Liberty University; and the Rev. Virginia Loew Schelhammer, Footsteps Christian Counseling.

Schwertfeger said after working in law enforcement in Virginia he came to Wheeling about four months ago. He said as chief he wants to do his part and get his officers special ”crisis intervention” training to better deal with the mentally ill.

”There appears to be a large homeless population here in Wheeling, and I know from studies that 25 percent of our homeless population suffers from mental illness. I’ve also noticed, unfortunately, a large number of incidents of suicide in Wheeling since I’ve been here in four months,” he said.

Schelhammer said church counselors often have to encourage families to seek mental health help by ”giving them permission” to do so.

”It’s important for us as counselors to work within the church and administer help that lines up with their faith and with their values,” she said. ”Sometimes a mental health issue can be complicated by a spiritual issue.”

Brady talked about Northwood’s programs. She noted many patients try to self medicate with alcohol or drugs, making their mental illness worse. Bernstein-Goff said after coming to Wheeling from New York years ago, she quickly noticed many residents would rather keep a stiff upper lip than talk about their problems.

”Within 24 hours of coming here I learned the word ‘nibby,”’ she quipped.

During her speech, Hopely, 25, talked about her continued struggles with depression and OCD that began when she 5 years old and led to her nearly committing suicide when she was in high school. She noted cognitive behavioral therapy and anti-depressants have helped her, in addition to being a speaker for the Active Minds Speakers Bureau. Hopely said most of her speeches are for middle and high school students.

”If you can do one thing for me, do a good deed for someone today,” Hopely said, adding a smile or hello can lift a stranger’s spirits.

Hopely noted she went through many therapists until she found one who could help her. The final therapist taught her the tools to help her overcome her obsessive tendencies.

”The more you give in, the more you feed it,” she said of OCD behavior.

Evening panelists were expected to include: Ohio County Sheriff Pat Butler; Kathy Herrington, associate professor of social work at West Virginia Northern Community College; Gary Sacco, Ohio County Mental Hygiene commissioner; and Brady.