BRISTOL – When giving an update on the activities of the city’s Opioid Task Force, Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu said she also wanted to address an important component of substance addiction that is not often discussed – mental illness.
She referred to a recent experience where her family had to call police about a woman who kept showing up uninvited at their home.
It was “difficult” because this woman is mentally ill, which is just as much of an illness as a back injury or a broken arm, she said. “The fact that instead of being in a behavioral health unit right now she is at a prison absolutely is abhorrent to me.”
She said the task force has met with people from the courts and Bristol Hospital about the overlap between mental illness and drug abuse.
“We as a community need to have that conversation, just like we are having about opioids, about vaping, about everything else that’s occurring. We need that so that as we’re driving down the street and we see that chronically homeless person, or someone who appears to be impacted by some other issue, instead of just averting your eyes maybe all of us have more of an understanding of what’s happening with that person,” she said.
Zoppo-Sassu said she has asked the city’s new Diversity Council to plan a community conversation about mental health, as one of a number of community conversations about various issues being planned in coming months.
The conversation would be an event similar to a community conversation about “Equity, Inclusiveness & Excellence” the Board of Education held in early January and is planning to repeat on May 30, at 5:30 p.m., at Bristol Central High School.
She said the Diversity Council is planning conversation events where people can meet their Muslim neighbors, participate in a Hispanic cultural celebration, etc.
“Mental health will be part of that, she said. “The mentally ill are a special group of people, and they sometimes struggle to assimilate just like some of these other groups do.”
She envisions the Opioid Task Force, the Bristol Burlington Health District, Bristol Hospital, Wheeler Clinic, and other organizations potentially participating. She is also consulting a pamphlet from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration called “Community Conversations About Mental Health,” as a guideline to setting up the conversation.
Increasingly lack of insurance coverage for mental illness is also a problem, Zoppo-Sassu added, noting that U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy is expected to come to town next week to talk about health care issues and she wants to bring that up with him.
There are regulars here in Bristol, “the guys who push the carts and who collect cans, the people who are chronically homeless because they don’t like to play by the shelter rules or they just don’t feel that they can be in a confined inside space,” she said. “They become part of the landscape, so it’s easy for people to ignore them.”
There are the cardboard sign panhandlers, which are often part of an orchestrated scheme, so people become cynical about them, she said. “And then you have ‘good families’ who have to deal with a family member with a problem, and they don’t know where to go for help.”
“Government doesn’t have to create the solutions or spend money on anything, but if we act as the catalyst to get people to understand there’s options and isolation doesn’t have to do their only solution, that they can talk about it,” she said.
Susan Corica can be reached at 860-973-1802 or firstname.lastname@example.org.