June 15 Catalyst Endowment Fund Meeting Summary

More than 100 members and guests attended the second meeting of the 2016 Catalyst Endowment Fund at the Connecticut Science Center on June 15 to have an in-depth discussion around this year’s theme, “Addressing the Mental Health Challenge.”

Kathleen Costello, chair of the Catalyst Endowment Fund steering committee, welcomed members and guests to the event and introduced Matt Fleury, President and CEO of the Connecticut Science Center, who offered some brief welcoming remarks.

Costello also provided guests with additional information about the Catalyst Endowment Fund and the process members engage in each year. Members learn about a chosen topic by holding two informational programs with content experts, review and consider requests for proposals related to the issue from area nonprofits, and hold a grantmaking meeting in the fall where members discuss the proposals and vote to award up to $50,000 in grants.

Costello introduced the three panelists for the evening including Pat Rehmer, President of the Behavioral Health Network, Senior Vice President at Hartford Healthcare, and former Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services; Mickey Kramer, Associate Child Advocate at the Connecticut Office of the Child Advocate; and Risa Sugarman, a licensed social worker, writer, and advocate for mental health awareness.

Pat Rehmer shared that it is estimated that one in four individuals experience some type of mental health issue. She believes there is a difference between the idea that there is a stigma to having a mental illness versus discrimination as a result of being identified with a mental illness. According to Rehmer, stigma results in feelings of shame and wanting to hide one’s illness. Discrimination is how we, as a society, treat those with mental illness. She described how, when people share publicly about their mental illnesses, others stop talking to them, often believing that people with mental health issues are violent and unstable.

Rehmer said that this type of discrimination is also seen in public policy decisions when legislators oppose laws to support those with substance abuse and mental health issues. One example is the complicated issue of approving use of the opioid overdose medication Narcan. Local politicians also make efforts to know confidential information about the proposed locations of group homes in an effort to prevent them from being placed in their communities. Because of this type of discrimination, many people avoid seeking mental health treatment and are reluctant to have their children diagnosed with mental health issues. This is especially damaging to children, as early intervention is a key component to helping a child recover from mental health issues.

Rehmer described the fact that when someone is physically ill, people will offer their support and even bring meals and other assistance to families during difficult times. She contrasted this to how people fail to offer this type of support when a neighbor and their family is deal with a serious mental health issue. These are both medical issues so why should people be treated so differently?

Mickey Kramer shared Rehmer’s viewpoint about the different treatment received by individuals dealing with a physical disease versus a mental illness, using her own experience as a cancer survivor as an example. Kramer discussed how, in spite of over 30 years of study about the long-lasting negative impacts of childhood trauma, very little has been done to address it. She pointed to a 1985 study of patients from an obesity clinic sponsored by Kaiser Permanente who routinely failed to show up to appointments. The study found that many of them had experienced Adverse Childhood Experiences. This type of childhood trauma was found to be a catalyst for health-risk behaviors and mental health issues in adulthood.

Kramer called for a greater focus on trauma when addressing mental health issues rather than expending available resources on the most extreme cases of mental illness. By better informing health care professionals, teachers, and other providers of care and services about how to identify signs of trauma, we can do a better job of connecting people to health services before serious problems occur. As an example, Kramer discussed a child who was throwing rocks at other classmates at recess. While everyone focused on this child’s dangerous behavior, no one bothered to ask why the child might be acting out in this manner. Kramer discussed how providing as many people as possible with a better understanding of trauma and focusing efforts on prevention, we can better utilize resources and ensure better health outcomes in the future.

Risa Sugarman was the third and final panelist to speak and opened her discussion with the idea that everyone is normal - it’s just that there are just billions of definitions of normal. She discussed how her initial struggles with mental health began when she was a teenager, but she attributed them to typical teenage angst. When she was in college she was diagnosed with Dysthymia, a form of chronic depression, and placed on anti-depressants. She continued to receive therapy and medical assistance for her condition but was able to complete her studies and graduate from Columbia University.

After her marriage, Risa and her husband struggled with fertility issues. After giving birth to her daughter, they hoped to later have a sibling for their daughter, but unfortunately, IVF was not successful. Sugarman was devastated, questioned her self-worth, and fell into a deep state of depression. After reconnecting with her therapist it was determined that the combination of the hormones she was taking for her fertility treatments and failure to get pregnant again led to her diagnosis of Major Depression Disorder.

After placing her family in financial distress from medications and intensive therapy with limited success, Sugarman was sent to Yale-New Haven Hospital’s psychiatric unit where she received electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). After multiple treatments and a relapse in between, Sugarman now feels mentally and physically healthy and has written extensively about her experiences on her blog and various online publications as therapy for herself and to help others struggling with mental health issues. Her story was a poignant example of how so many among us struggle with mental illness.

Following the panel discussion, the audience was separated into four groups and dispersed throughout the Science Center. Each speaker was rotated among the break outs to provide Catalyst members and guests with the opportunity for Q and A and discussion with the speakers. In addition to the panelists, Barbara Damon from the Prudence Crandall Center and Nancy Crommett from Hartford Interval House provided an update on the grants each organization received in 2015 to support both mothers and children dealing with the long-term effects of domestic violence.

The Catalyst Endowment Fund will hold its grant making meeting on October 18, 2016. Please contact Betty Ann Grady at or 860-548-1888 with any questions about this program. 


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