Report looks at Niskayuna mental health needs

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By Indiana Nash

More than 30 years after Robert Winchester reported on the mental health issues of the Niskayuna community, following the suicides of four high school students, he’s found cause to do so again.

Out of his first report, the Niskayuna Community Action Program was formed. It is one of the most active organizations in the community today and in part sponsored Winchester’s second report.

Winchester, a long-time community member and educator, conducted a report of mental health needs in Niskayuna after more than a dozen residents took their own lives between 2012 and 2015. Most of these were adults between the ages of 40 and 70.

“The number 15 was tossed around, but it could be more or it could be less,” Winchester said.

He presented the study to community members on Wednesday, and his report brought out several issues surrounding mental health that many have a difficult time facing.

Some of these included the stigma of having mental health problems, the prevalence of anxiety/depression in the community and a sense of discomfort in discussing those issues with other community members.

As a graduate of Niskayuna High School and a community member, she’s experienced and seen this stigma of mental health issues first hand. Part of that stigma comes from the misconception that Niskayuna is filled with highly educated and successful people who don’t or shouldn’t be struggling with mental health issues, she said.

“People have a misconception of what it is to seek mental health treatment…,” Nottke said.

This sentiment was echoed and expanded upon Winchester’s report.

Winchester used a method called the Key Informant Approach to conduct his report. He interviewed more than 75 community members about issues that contribute to the mental health of the community members. He also had a clinical social worker, a doctor, a psychiatrist and other members of the medical community read through his findings and contribute.

Although every person interviewed was unique in their own mental health needs and in how they viewed the mental health needs in the community, there were a few issues that each person echoed.

The stigma and the reluctance of adults to address mental health issues with those in their own age group was one of the most explored areas of need in the study and one that most audience members recognized.

In the late 1970s when Winchester conducted his first report, mental health issues were on the forefront of the community members’ minds because four high school students had taken their lives within a five-year time period.

When he presented his findings, Winchester said that the response from the community was overwhelming. About 150 people turned out to the presentation.

“People were committed to doing something because it was kids that were dying,” Winchester said.

About 25 community members came out for the presentation on Wednesday.

Connor Graham, a Niskayuna High School student who attended the presentation, has felt the reverberations of adult suicides through the community.

When two of his classmates’ parents committed suicide, he grappled with what to say to them. He wanted to be supportive, but wasn’t sure how.

Graham is not alone in this. According to Winchester, many adults in the community struggle with how to address these issues as well and that silence can compound the sense of stigma surrounding mental health issues.

“As adults, we need to break down these barriers, take away the stigma. … If we don’t work collectively as adults to care for ourselves and our community, then we’re not doing our kids any favors,” said another community member at the presentation.

Winchester believes that the simplest ways to break down the barriers is to begin addressing them in faith communities, in other community-focused organizations, at the workplace and among community members.

“The longer it takes to be treated, the more entrenched the problem becomes,” Winchester said.

He is looking for suggestions and comments from the community on the report and on how community members can improve mental health in Niskayuna. Email him at trustinbob@aol.com with any feedback or ideas on the report.