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Destigmatizing Mental Health
The Friends R Family Foundation

April 2015
 The Friends R Family Foundation was set up in memory of Danyelle Filiaggi, seen here with her three daughters.

The Friends R Family Foundation was set up in memory of Danyelle Filiaggi, seen here with her three daughters.

According to Mental Health First Aid-USA, one in four people will experience a major depressive episode over the course of their lifetime, disrupting their ability to work, carry out daily activities and have satisfying relationships. The Campaign to Change Direction says more Americans are expected to die this year by suicide than in car accidents. Yet mental health continues to be whispered about or worse yet, stigmatized. One new local foundation is setting out to change all that and to improve access to mental health care.

Friends R Family Foundation
The Friends R Family Foundation was born out of a very personal loss. Founder and Board President Jamie Filiaggi lost his wife Danyelle, a mother of three, to suicide on Oct. 15, 2014. A month later, he brought a group of family and friends together and within 90 days of that meeting, the foundation was a registered Maryland 501(c)3 non-profit, had a website and Facebook page with 860 followers and registered more than 400 people for its inaugural event, the Danyelle Filiaggi Memorial 5K and Family Walk, which took place on March 29.

According to Filiaggi, the Friends R Family Foundation was created to honor his wife while raising awareness of mental health issues and improving access to care and resources. “With Friends R Family, we are striving to give mental health a personal face, removing the clinical and negative stereotypes to tear down the stigma faced by those who struggle with mental health,” says Filiaggi. Specifically, the group is focused on three main areas: research, community and awareness, and although in its infancy is finding its services are much needed.

Harford County Executive Barry Glassman publicly expressed his support for the group at the 5K and Family Walk, where he participated in the opening remarks. Deputy Director of the Harford County Department of Community Services Sharon Lipford calls Friends R Family the “missing link” in connecting the work her department does with the greater community. “Friends R Family is a vital community partner in the efforts of preventing suicide and saving lives,” she explains.

Facts About Mental Illness
Lipford points out that nearly 29 percent of people will experience a diagnosed anxiety disorder in their lifetime, while 17 percent will be diagnosed with depressive disorder. The third most common disorder is substance abuse, which often occurs in tandem with other disorders. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide claimed 41,149 lives in 2013 in the United States, with someone dying by suicide every 12.8 minutes. A suicide attempt is made every minute of every day, resulting in nearly one million attempts made annually.

To receive a diagnosis for depression or anxiety, a person needs to display signs and symptoms for at least two weeks. These can include physical symptoms such as changes in sleep or appetite or aches and pains; behavioral signs including crying spells or withdrawal; or psychological symptoms such as sadness, anger or self-blame. “Mental illness symptoms can range on a spectrum from mild through severe,” says Lipford. “It’s not one size fits all.”

The Face of a Foundation

Danyelle Filiaggi was a native of Harford County who lost her battle with mental illness on Oct. 15, 2014. A wife and mother of three, Danyelle gained a reputation for always working to help others, from serving as a PTA cookie mom to volunteering in her children’s schools. While working for Aeropostale, she oversaw the collection of jeans to be donated to those in need for that company’s “Jeans for Teens” initiative. Most recently, she helped organize successful fundraising events at The Greene Turtle in Aberdeen, where she served as marketing director, including numerous Funds for Friends events to help offset medical expenses and raise money for worthy causes. Danyelle was also active in the local business community, where she volunteered for groups including Harford Family House and the Chesapeake Professional Women’s Network Fashion Show.

Not only do mental health issues affect people at home, they can also affect the workplace. Lipford explains, “People in the workplace may present as disengaged, argumentative or unmotivated. They are frequently mistaken as being lazy or not caring when a depressive disorder is the real culprit.” The good news is that steady employment and financial security are considered two of several protective factors that encourage those who are suffering to not give up hope, but rather to seek treatment and support. Other protective factors include faith, the presence of strong relationships and social support and treatment.

The Future of Mental Health Care
Within her department, Lipford is focusing on providing mental health first aid training, something that has been proven at a national level to be highly successful in suicide prevention. In May, the Harford County Health Department, the Department of Community Services and University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health will offer training to help pediatricians and urgent care doctors screen for suicide. “Many pediatricians feel uncomfortable starting kids on medications or starting mental health treatment,” Lipford says. “Our goal is to provide them the information to make the right recommendations for their patients. “

And mental health first aid training extends beyond just medical professionals. To date all Harford County Sheriff’s Office deputies and correctional officers have been trained in the Mental Health First Aid model. Additionally, as new staff members join the department, they are required to participate in this training. All 911 dispatchers and emergency operations workers have also completed training, and local hospitals and library employees are receiving training. In fact, demand for the training is so high that three additional staff members were trained as trainers in March to be able to reach more people.

For Friends R Family, the immediate focus is on encouraging the community to talk openly about mental illness, supporting those suffering – a common theme of the foundation is “Who have you checked on today?” – and directing people in need to available resources.

Where to Go for Help
If you or someone you know displays symptoms of mental illness, Lipford recommends talking to a family doctor or primary care provider as the first step in seeking help. Another local resource she recommends is the Harford County Mobile Crisis Program, an affiliate of Sheppard Pratt Health System. Funded by a grant from the Office on Mental Health, Core Service Agency of Harford County, the mobile crisis is a resource seven days a week from 8 a.m.-midnight for those who call 410-638-5248.

On an individual basis, Lipford recommends a three-step intervention plan if you are concerned about a person’s immediate safety:

1. Show you care and be genuine. Listen and take a suicidal person or person in crisis seriously. Reflect back to the person what you are hearing.

2. Ask about suicide. Be direct but not confrontational by asking questions like, “Are you thinking about suicide or harming yourself?” or “How would you hurt yourself?” You do not need to solve a person’s problems, just engage with them.

3. Get help, but do not leave the person alone. Maintain the person’s safety and your own.

Lipford says those who suffer from mental disorders or know someone who does should not lose hope. “People do recover. We can begin by recognizing mental health and illness and helping those who are seeking support find treatment. They should not have to suffer in silence,” she says. Filiaggi agrees, saying, “Danyelle cared so deeply for others and was always doing what she could to support her friends and family. I know turning our collective sorrow about her loss into a positive force that may help others is exactly what she would have wanted us to do.” I95

Friends R Family Foundation