Forum Gives Chance For Open Talk On Mental Health

By Judy Benson
The Day, New London, Conn.

NORWICH

Attorney Kathleen Flaherty believes she has a responsibility to talk openly about living with bipolar disorder, an illness she was first hospitalized for in 1990 while a student at Harvard.

“I pretty much thought my life was over,” said Flaherty, now a staff attorney with Connecticut Legal Aid in Hartford and an advocate for those with mental illness.

Flaherty, the first of four speakers in a forum about mental health, got the professional help and peer support she needed, and now tells her story “because I can,” even appearing on public service advertisements about people living with disabilities.

“Things change when people talk,” she said. “I’m thrilled we’re having this conversation.”

Attended by more than 100 people, the forum is one in a series about mental health sponsored by Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Health Network, an affiliate along with The William W. Backus Hospital of Hartford HealthCare.

Author Wally Lamb, whose novels and other works have explored various manifestations of mental illness, said his interest in the topic began while he was growing up in Norwich when Norwich State Hospital was still open.

“I remember being fascinated but a little scared by that place,” he said.

Many years later at a family wake, he said, he learned that his grandfather had been committed to the psychiatric hospital for four or five years.

But decades later, that fact was still a source of shame for his uncle, the only one of his grandfather’s 11 children still alive when Lamb learned about it. When Lamb wrote about his grandfather, he said, his uncle went to all the bookshops around his home in Florida to buy every copy he could find of the essay collection it was part of.

Lamb said he became further convinced of the need for greater awareness and honesty about mental illness 15 years ago, when he began volunteering as a writing teacher at York Correctional Institution in East Lyme.

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