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May 24, 2018 10:43 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Spreading Mental Health Awareness One Peer At A Time

Jim Stewart hands out the post-survey. VALERIE GORDON
May 28, 2018 1:45 PM

Some describe it as “living in a black hole,” surrounded by feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and worthlessness, all of which come crushing down, intense and unrelenting.

Depression affects more people than most realize. One in four Americans suffers from the debilitating effects of depression, and two out of three of those sufferers do not seek treatment or support due to an overwhelming fear of being stigmatized.

Tory Masters was one of those people.

The 67-year-old Water Mill resident first started feeling depressed and anxious at 17 years old, following in the footsteps of her siblings. Her older brother and sister both committed suicide, in 1980 and 1995, respectively.

She recently recalled the days when getting out of bed was like “climbing Mount Everest.”

“I never felt so terrified,” she said, sitting at a conference table in the Southampton Hospital Foundation office on a Tuesday in May. “I felt like I was no longer me.”

Ms. Masters said she would climb that mountain every day for the next 20 years, wondering if each day was the day she would jump off. It wasn’t until her early 40s when she finally sought help. She asked herself: “Do I want to live or do I want to die?”

“I wanted to live,” she said, her blond-highlighted hair tied back in a tight bun. “I became the first person in our family to finally deal with this and bring it out into the open.”

Untreated depression is the number-one cause of suicide in the United States, according to Suicide.org. More than 90 percent of people who commit suicide have some form of mental illness, including depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or anxiety.

Most don’t know that recovery is a very reachable goal, Ms. Masters said.

“Every suicide is unnecessary—it happened because they thought that there was no other way out. They thought that they were the only one.”

Heroes, Not Failures

Ms. Masters owes her life to the people of the Mood Disorders Support Group at Beth Israel Hospital in New York, where she got her first taste of relief. Finally, she wasn’t alone.

“I went to my first support group, and it saved my life,” she said. “I could tell people my deepest, darkest secrets, and I wasn’t judged. I was supported and I was cared for.”

In 1986, Ms. Masters left her career at ABC News—where she had worked as a senior producer and programmer for “Good Morning America” and ABC News since 1978—to devote herself entirely to facilitating peer support groups and other mental health initiatives.

Since 1992, she has served as a senior peer group facilitator and trainer at MDSG, which provides 16 peer-run support groups per week at two New York City hospitals—Mount Sinai Beth Israel and St. Luke’s Roosevelt—and for five years she worked as a certified psychiatric rehabilitation practitioner at Hands Across Long Island, a mental health agency in Central Islip. “Mental health became my life,” she said.

After moving to Water Mill five years ago with her husband, Howie, she decided to expand her knowledge even further.

In 2016, she met with Robert Chaloner, president of what was then Southampton Hospital, and Peter Larsen, chair of the hospital’s board of directors, and developed the first East End Mood Disorders Support Group.

EEMDSG offers two separate and confidential peer-run support groups—one for those suffering from mental illness, and the other for family members and loved ones—which work to begin to normalize and remove the stigma associated with depression.

The groups meet every Thursday from 6:30 to 8 p.m. in Stony Brook Southampton Hospital’s Ed & Phyllis Davis Wellness Institute. They are designed to pull people out of isolation who are in pain but feeling uncomfortable leaving the house, Ms. Masters said.

“The horrible thing about mental health is that you start to believe that you’re damaged goods, that you’re weak, that you can’t live normally like other people. It’s fiction,” she said. “Not only are we not failures, we’re heroes.”

Camaraderie And Support

One of those heroes is Ananda Mendonca of East Quogue.

Since her teens, the 36-year-old has struggled with the stigma associated with mental health, battling depression and feelings of worthlessness. It wasn’t until she was in her early 30s, when she was diagnosed as having bipolar disease, that she finally learned why.

And EEMDSG taught her that she wasn’t alone.

When Ms. Mendonca first walked through the doors of the Ed & Phyllis Davis Wellness Institute, she had no idea of the level of support and camaraderie that she was about to receive. “There’s absolutely no judgment,” she said. “We can talk about everything, with no fear of it leaving that room. It makes you feel normal, where before you felt it was just you.”

Two years later, Ms. Mendonca is considering training under Ms. Masters to become a full-time peer specialist.

And she’s not alone. A member who joined EEMDSG in March, who spoke on condition of anonymity, is considering joining the training as well. “[Ms. Masters] has been an angel that has been sent to me and I want to follow in her footsteps,” he said. “She has helped me put my illness in perspective.”

Much like Ms. Masters, the 42-year-old Southampton man began feeling depressed in his early teens, waiting more than 20 years to seek help out of fear of being stigmatized.

Several months ago, he took his first steps toward recovery. The former Los Angeles television producer turned to transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, a noninvasive procedure that uses magnetic fields to stimulate nerve cells in the brain to alleviate feelings of depression. “It saved my life,” he said.

Combined with support from his peers, the Southampton resident began to see himself in a new light.

“Me coming out of my darkness is new for me,” he said. “Having that camaraderie and that unique similarity … you wouldn’t get that from a therapy session. There’s not a time when I walk out of there that I don’t feel better than when I walked in.”

He referred to his depression as his “dirty little secret,” noting that mental illness is highly misunderstood: “As long as it remains that way lives are going to be lost.”

To be exact, 44,965 lives. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, nearly 50,000 Americans die by suicide, each year.

Which is why Ms. Masters didn’t stop at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital. She strongly believes that she has to begin normalizing mental health illnesses at a young age.

Thanks to her, both East Hampton and Hampton Bays high schools now offer mental health curricula.

Kids Come Forward

Jim Stewart, a physical education and health teacher at East Hampton High School, said this week that the “Break Free From Depression” curriculum, which originated out of the Boston Children’s Hospital, is a four-module program meant to raise mental health awareness in teens.

At the beginning of the course, or module one, students take a pre-survey questionnaire, exploring their knowledge of mental health with true-or-false questions, such as “[Are] most teens who die by suicide depressed?” and “Is depression treatable?” They also watch a PowerPoint presentation that begins to teach them about the number of Americans suffering from depression.

Module two expands upon that with a South Boston High School documentary in which students, some of whom have attempted suicide, openly talk about their depression.

“All of these kids come through it on the other side with counseling and support from friends and family,” Mr. Stewart said. “At East Hampton, we do a pretty good job of identifying kids—our students do an even better job of just showing empathy for others. That’s the culture of our school right now.”

The third module requires each student to complete a case study on a student from the documentary, and in module four, which Mr. Stewart began on Monday, May 21, students will engage in role playing to learn how to access help.

Participants will also receive a post-survey, to be compared to their pre-survey, to measure their increased mental health knowledge, Mr. Stewart said.

“Knowledge is power—even better, action is power,” he said.

He added that after each module, the students are given a student assistance request form with options for students to speak with a counselor right away, schedule an appointment, or check a box stating that they are not in need of any help.

“The follow-up is what’s key,” he continued. “We’ve already had several students make appointments to speak with school psychologists.”

Julia Petersen, who has been a guidance counselor at East Hampton High School for two years, said that since the implementation of the curriculum earlier this year, she has seen a significant increase in students seeking help.

She said that with the help of the student assistance request forms, each of the school’s six counselors has had at least one student come and talk to them this year. “It’s nice to get that kid on your radar,” she said.

The Long Lane school currently employs one full-time psychologist, three social workers, and six school counselors, all of whom are available to talk to students Monday through Friday, Principal Adam Fine said.

Ms. Petersen added that she has also seen an increase in students coming in with concerns about their friends. “At least half if not more than the serious things that come to me is because a friend of a student came forward,” she said. “That’s why it’s really nice to have a strong network.”

Reiley Segelken, a freshman at East Hampton High School, is part of that network. She said that the “Break Free From Depression” curriculum has taught her how to talk to her peers without making them uncomfortable, using conversation starters like: “How are you feeling? I’ve been noticing you’ve been down, [and] I’m here to listen.”

She said that the documentary really opened her eyes to those suffering from depression. “It can happen to anybody,” she said, solidifying the evidence that Ms. Masters’s message is spreading.

Ms. Masters eventually plans to expand the curriculum to more high schools as well as middle and elementary schools on the East End. “I’m just going to keep putting it out there,” she said.

“I’ve been doing this long enough to know that if there is the right support for young people there would be no suicides,” she continued. “To normalize depression—to say that it’s not only okay but that it’s a sign of strength to say, ‘I’m suffering.’ Speaking up takes strength, and I promise that if you do, you will get the support you need and you will be okay.”

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