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Bridging the Gap

Local organizations sponsor conference on mental health and suicide prevention for communities of faith.

Through her work as school psychologist at Robinson Secondary School, Fran Gatlin knows the daily depression with which many teenagers struggle.

"We have more kids who are chronically on the edge of caring to live or not," said Gatlin. "That’s the most frightening thing … The hospital doesn’t take them, parents don’t know what to do, we at school don’t know what to do."

In an effort to gather more resources to the fight against chronic depression and mental illness, Gatlin and others are turning to another ally — congregations of faith. The Virginia Department of Health, Fairfax Partnership for Youth and CrisisLink sponsor "Bridging the Gap," a day-long interfaith conference on mental health and suicide prevention on Thursday, June 16, from 8 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. at St. Matthews United Methodist Church, located at 8617 Little River Turnpike in Annandale.

National Institute of Mental Health statistics reported that 44.3 million Americans suffer from diagnosable mental disorders in their lifetime, and many of those are members of a congregation of faith.

"When you think about one in five people who have a mental illness during their life, when we look out at our congregation, that’s a lot of people," said Jeri Fields, associate pastor at Mount Vernon Presbyterian Church in Alexandria. Fields said many times members of congregations won't acknowledge difficulties they may be having.

"It’s like they say at (Alcoholics Anonymous), it’s the 50 pound pink elephant in the room. Everybody knows it is there, but we tiptoe around it, and there are so many people hurting," she said.

THE CONFERENCE is designed "to get members of the faith community to be aware of the prevalence of depression and suicide, and begin to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness," said Susan Lydick, a member of the Fairfax Partnership for Youth's Youth Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Task Force. "It’s still a taboo issue amongst lots of people."

Many times, said Lydick, the main obstacle to a person seeking treatment for mental health is not just not being aware, but also being reluctant to tell others about their condition.

"We’re seeing the faith communities as possibly being wonderful partners with the mental health community to help people get services," she said.

At Mount Vernon Presbyterian, that has meant providing a weekly time called "Agape Reservoir," from the Greek word for love, for those with mental illnesses to gather at the church for activities and a meal.

"It’s a time when people can come together and be accepted for who they are. They are sitting down at table fellowship and sharing their stories of what’s going on," said Fields. The ministry started with four members of the community and four members of the church. Now, said Fields, the gathering — which has included outings to miniature golf and ball games — numbers close to 70 people.

"If somebody’s kind of down and out, they can come and be filled," said Fields. "If they are feeling well, they can come and give." Another program that she hopes can be modeled across the county is the weekly "Streams of Hope" program which is designed for parents and family members with daily contact with those with a mental illness.

"You can’t always make the situation at the time better, but by having other people listen to your stories and give suggestions … it’s been very rewarding," said Fields.

Gatlin said the conference was put together at the request of a focus group of leaders from a variety of local denominations. Speakers will include Carol Lofter-Thur, executive director of Arlington-based CrisisLink suicide hotline, Sara Thompson with the National Mental Health Association, and W. Benjamin Pratt, the keynote speaker. The event is free and open to the public.

"It’s very exciting," said Gatlin. "Finding all the avenues for the message to be out there — that people should seek help if they’re feeling depressed — I think is vitally important."