The “Better Tomorrow” vigil to increase awareness around mental health issues and addiction drew a crowd of almost 200 to the Arch Street Teen Center on Sunday.
John Hamilton, director of Liberation Programs, said mental health challenges and substances use disorder challenges go hand-in-hand, and many people his organization serves have co-occurring issues where people use substances to medicate mental health issues.
Hamilton said New Canaan’s Paul Reinhardt was an inspiration for the Greenwich event. New Canaan held its sixth annual Addiction Awareness Vigil last month. Reinhardt was inspired by his son Evan’s passing in July 2015 from a drug overdose, and has firsthand seen the significance of what offering one’s help to another can mean.
Liberation Programs has been in Greenwich for 25 years, and has a presence at Greenwich High School. Today, they are partnering with the Police Dept and the Health Dept on a harm-reduction program to respond to every overdose in the community with an overdose specialist and recovery coach.
“Somebody who has an overdose has the greatest risk for a lethal overdose,” Hamilton said, adding that last year 107,000 people died of drug overdoses in the US, with 1,400 in Connecticut alone.
Giovanna Mozzo, director of The Hub, said Icy Frantz and Tara Restieri had approached her about organizing the event, and credited their vision and determination to bring the event to fruition.
“In today’s world we can see folks on a daily basis and not even know that someone is struggling,” Mozzo said. “A person may not talk to you about it. You may see stuff online that may not even show that they are struggling. It’s really important to be kind and ask how someone is feeling.”
“To the outside world people may look perfect, but they aren’t in reality,” she continued.
Mozzo explained that 988 has been designated as the new three-digit dialing code that will route callers to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Learn more at 988lifeline.org.
Featured speakers included Ally Kernan said was pleased by the good turnout.
“I was surprised because this is often a community where these type of conversations happen behind closed doors,” Kernan said.
She talked about having had suicidal thoughts and thoughts of self-harm since elementary school when she didn’t have the words to express herself.
“What I did know what the feeling of pain, disconnection and shame,” she continued. “I would turn to anything to feel self-worth and connection, again a toxic connection is still a connection. I ended up experiencing numerous violent relationships, became addicted to heroin, was homeless and at 22 years old was incarcerated for multiple felonies and spent a year in prison in Niantic.”
“Many of those consequences were the result of desperation of trying to find purpose and meaning and connection,” she added.
Today, Kernan said she had learned how to express what she is experiencing, and knows people and places that are safe to share them.
Her career field allows her to connect with others experiencing the same challenges, and she runs a support group on Tuesday nights for anyone experiencing thoughts of suicide or self harm.
“What makes my group different is we don’t have any clinical interventionists. There is no 911 responders being called. It’s just a safe place you can come and talk about those things,” she added.
Mr. Hamilton credited Kernan for pushing the Dept of Education to put NARCAN in schools.
“Schools were saying if we put NARCAN in schools kids are going to want to do more drugs,” he said. “Ally’s response to that was that she has a fire extinguisher in her kitchen, it doesn’t mean I want to start fires. It got the point across, and it opened up door for getting it in the schools.”
“As teens we have witnessed mental health challenges first hand through our own struggles and that of our friends and peers,” Tomas said. “The pressures of high school with 44% of teens reporting that they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year.”
Tomas said the pandemic had changed everyone in unique ways and resulted in uncertainty.
“Beyond this, teens often feel intense pressure as we try to balance our academic pursuits, our extracurricular activities and our social lives,” he added. “As all of us in our community chase success, we often find that doing so may come at the expense of our own happiness and well being.”
Amrutha said it was important to create connections, recognize those who are struggling and empathize with those who need help.