It sounds odd to say a forum on stress, anxiety and depression was a big hit, but such was the case with StigmaFree IWV's second public workshop session April 11. In all, nearly 50 people crowded into the conference room at Desert Valleys Federal Credit Union, eager to learn, share information and above all help reduce the stigma of seeking help.  So great was the turnout that event facilitators had to scramble to bring out more chairs so everyone who wanted to could be seated.

A trio of speakers from College Community Services held the attention of the packed room. Speakers included Ivy Erickson, Ashley Thompson, and Pam Bezanson-Soard.

StigmaFree IWV group members Chris Hill (Gary Charlon State Farm), Steve Martinez (Ridgecrest Charter School), Rajanikant Jonnalagadda (Searles Valley Minerals), Alex Diaz (Desert Valleys FCU) and Lisa Stephens (Cerro Coso Community College) were all in attendance at the workshop Wednesday. The program is part of Leadership Ridgecrest, a nine-month program sponsored by the Ridgecrest Chamber of Commerce to develop local leaders from within the community.

Leadership Ridgecrest's inaugural class was split into two groups and tasked with coming up with projects to benefit the community. StigmaFree IWV is one group. The other is the Work Ready program, which is holding a series of workshops to teach local youth work skills (see story elsewhere this edition). Note: Jessica Weston from the Daily Independent is a member of the Leadership Ridgecrest inaugural class.

According to their mission statement, StigmaFree IWV aims to eradicate the stigma of seeking help for mental health issues. “The perception won't change if we don't act to change it. The StigmaFree movement is an effort to end stigma and create hope for those affected by mental illness,” according to the group's Facebook page.

College Community Services was established in 1996 and provides a comprehensive continuum of substance abuse and mental health services for children, youth, adults and families in various communities in outlying areas of Kern County including Ridgecrest.

Pre-licensed therapist Erickson spoke first, explaining that mental health concerns are very common and mental illness impacts everybody. There is no single cause for mental illness, she said, but delaying treatment can frequently make the problem more severe.

Reducing stigma of mental illness

Next up was peer support therapist Bezanson-Soard.

“People who live with mental illness feel diminished, devalued and fearful because of society's negative attitudes toward them. As a result of this many people struggling with mental health challenges may not get the help they need,” she said.

She spoke about her own history with mental illness as the room listened, riveted.

“I always knew something was different with me,” Bezanson-Soard said. “But it went undiagnosed because it wasn't something my family ever wanted to discuss. I lived with mental illness for many years before receiving my diagnosis that would change my world . . . I am in recovery because my desire to be more than my diagnosis was strong. My support system never let me give up on myself.” She thanked her husband for fighting along aside her.

“I was labeled in the beginning but I rose above that to help others,” she said. “Because I lived with a mental health issue I can relate where others cannot. If I can recover, recovery is possible for everyone.”

She added, “that's always hard” after completing her story as the room applauded.

Bezanson-Soard listed the all-important ways to reduce the stigma of mental illness. These include talking openly about mental health, educating others and yourself, being conscious of language, encouraging equality between physical and mental illness, and showing compassion for those with mental illness.

“Choose empowerment over shame and be honest about treatment,” she concluded.

Reducing stress

Recovery coordinator Thompson then spoke about stress. Stress is physical mental or emotional factors that cause bodily tension. There are different types of stress and stressors include daily responsibilities, sudden changes and trauma. Everyone experiences stress, but coping abilities differ.

“Not everyone shows stress on the outside,” she said.

Stress is not all bad. It can be a motivator, but chronic stress is harmful and can impact your health in numerous ways. It can also lead to depression and anxiety and stress disorders such as PTSD and generalized anxiety disorder.
“Your body is very much linked with your mental health,” she said.

Thompson then led the group in a relaxation activity.

Helping depression, preventing suicide

Erickson took the next topic, which was depression. She said it is so prevalent it is considered the “common cold of mental health.” It is more common in women than in men, but it affects everyone in all groups. Depression is something beyond sadness. “It can be feeling nothing. Feeling listless or hopeless or worthless,” she said.
Adolescents, for example, tend to express depression as anger or irritability.

Signs of depression include lack of interest in favorite activities, eating too much or too little, changes in sleep patterns, fatigue and moving slowly.

Recurring thoughts of death or suicide are other symptoms. Others are self-isolating, lack of grooming and not taking part in normal activities.

Depression triggers can include loss, life changes (even positive ones), trauma, long-term physical illnesses, genetic predisposition, and even certain medical conditions.

Depression is particularly important to recognize because it is linked with suicide, which is the tenth leading cause of death in the US.

“Someone struggling with depression is more likely to die of suicide,” Erickson said. She added that women are more likely to attempt suicide but men are more likely to die by suicide. However, it affects all ages and groups.

Signs that someone may be contemplating suicide include making over threats that they are suicidal, seeking access to means, feeling hopeless, demonstrating increased anger and reckless and risky behaviors, feeling trapped, having mood changes, pulling away from social support, and having a lack of purpose.

Other signs include actually giving possessions away, making end-of-life plans, and telling people goodbye – sometimes in a subtle way.

Erickson said if you are concerned someone is suicidal, you should ask them directly about it.

“Better somebody is offended than not [be] here tomorrow,” she said.

In addition, tips for helping people with suicidal thoughts and depression, in general, include listening to what they are saying, being patient and non-judgmental, meeting them where they are at, and offering emotional support.
“If it's not detrimental, help with tasks,” she added. “One of the things that's really helpful is to have a clean, comfortable space.”

Finally, “always, always refer them to a mental health professional.”

In addition, ways to cope with depression include seeking medical care, improving organization, exercising and attempting to take part in regular activities – even if it is difficult.

It gets easier, Thompson said.

The forum concluded with an intense and sometimes emotional public question and answer session.

The plan is to continue to hold StigmaFree IWV workshops the second Tuesday of every month. The next workshop will be held May 8. The topic is NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Health) “In our own voices.” For more on StigmaFree IWV, see their Facebook page.

For more information about resources available through College Community Services in Ridgecrest, visit its office at 1400 N. Norma St. Suite 133 or call 760-499-7406.