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Trauma, recovery, community all themes at 6th Community Behavioral Health Forum

Organizers of McLean County’s sixth annual Community Behavioral Health Forum set out to make it bigger and more accessible than in years past. Held at Illinois State University’s Bone Student Center, there were 32 panels on topics ranging from vaping to connecting with rural mental health.

Sarah Stalter, assistant director of behavioral health coordination for McLean County, said the county put a lot of thought into making the forum friendly for all.

“The idea is that it's a full community forum,” she said in a conversation ahead of the event. “In the past, a lot of our attendees have been behavioral health professionals; we really pushed this year to expand that base a bit.”

At the forum, Director of Behavioral Health Coordination Kevin McCall said he thinks they might have been successful in their mission to have the biggest forum to date. They will assess that over the next couple of weeks.

“We don't quite know yet what the total number is,” he said. “We're hopeful.”

Also at the forum was a resource fair, with local health providers like Chestnut Health Systems that had a booth with opioid recovery information and free Narcan.

Keynote on community healing from trauma

Kicking off the event was Tara Powell, a researcher, behavioral health advocate and associate professor at the University of Illinois. She gave the keynote address on healing from collective trauma.

Powell talked about how communities bounced back from disasters ranging from Hurricane Katrina to the COVID-19 pandemic, and — in response to an audience question — the second-hand trauma the war between Israel and Hamas.

Powell said connections are key.

“Communities are vital to recovery,” she said. “And that recovery, as I mentioned, just like with Katrina, it takes time. Every disaster is different, and there are many different types of disasters. And the way it impacts an individual in a community are very unique.”

On resilience, Powell said it’s “ordinary, not extraordinary.”

“It's like building a muscle,” she said. “So, if you go running every day, or if you lift weights, your muscles are going to build — and resilience is the same. It has to be intentional, it has to be practiced.”

To recover, and to build resilience, Powell said people in a community — whether it’s work, Bloomington-Normal, or otherwise — must work together.

“People who are in a strong, tight-knit community, they have a sense of trust, they care for each other, and they want to support each other,” she said.

32 breakout sessions

Of the 32 breakout panels and presentations, there were seven core topics: mental health; breaking the stigma; diverse community perspectives; emerging topics; law and justice; McLean County goings-on; and family.

Langston Pates stands at a podium. His arm is outstretched. His shirt says "intent to deliver."
Emily Bollinger
Langston Pates talks about his incarceration

Langston Pates spoke about his life journey from youth to his time incarcerated to how he built the family and businesses he has today.

He’s currently a landlord, owns a moving company, and combats recidivism through his work with the McLean County Reentry Council. But prior to all that, he was convicted on drug charges and spent several years in and out of county, state and federal prisons.

His journey, Pates explained, started with childhood trauma that was never fully addressed. His trauma took different forms as he grew up, including a substance abuse disorder. He said getting to where he is now required finding a new purpose and confronting the decisions from his past that led him to prison.

“People can turn their lives around if they deal with untreated trauma,” he said, adding he had to rediscover his identity outside of dealing marijuana. He realized the crime he committed — intent to deliver — was where his identity lay, not the drugs themselves.

“I now own a moving company,” he said. “It's our job to, you know, get people's household goods from point A to point B, so that intent to deliver is still there. And I'm also venturing into being an author and a motivational speaker, so I now deliver a message with intent and purpose.”

Another panel covered trauma and the body. Tonya Bassett, owner of Breathe Counseling, spoke about how trauma is scientific.

Tonya Bassett stands at a podium, mid-sentence. She has her hand on her chest.
Emily Bollinger
Tonya Bassett of Breathe Counseling presents on trauma and the body.

“Our bodies are meant to survive, and they are beautifully and wonderfully made to help us live and maneuver in this world, and it's going to do whatever it feels like it needs to do to keep us alive,” she said.

This includes recreating trauma as a defense mechanism. She said to effectively treat trauma, people need to consider the body.

“Because if we miss the body or don't incorporate the body into the healing process, we're gonna stay stuck in our trauma, and we are not going to find healing,” she said.

Bassett added that she has lived experience with this notion. Her brother died in a car accident when she was 10, and her body continued preparing her for the worst years after the fact. Every time she heard about someone running late, she made conclusions: “I would envision them in the casket,” she said.

A panel on the college student experience delved into identity, imposter syndrome, work-life balance and what institutions can do for their students.

There were three local university students on the panel. Kassy Diaz, a first-year graduate student at ISU, was one of them. After the panel, she said her thoughts lingered on the similarities between herself and the other panelists.

Panelists at the student breakout. From left to right: Kassy Diaz of ISU, Amy Jeck of Heartland Community College, and Litzy Morales of Illinois Wesleyan University. They sit at a table. Behind Diaz is a projecter.
Melissa Ellin
Panelists at the student breakout. From left to right: Kassy Diaz of ISU, Amy Jeck of Heartland Community College, and Litzy Morales of Illinois Wesleyan University.

“We've all kind of concluded the same thing, is that sense of belonging is really impactful for students,” she said.

Diaz said there’s a lot universities can do to support their students, without the students having to ask.

“I think by being able to effectively have a food pantry, and how to have more produce and how to help with insurance, by taking away all those basic need problems can definitely help someone better cope with their mental health,” she said.

Putting plans in motion to address all those issues, she added, is the next step.

Thoughts on the forum

A range of people attended the forum.

Traci White, a therapist at Brightpoint Central Region, said she was looking for ways to best support her clients. She attended Tonya Bassett’s presentation on trauma and the body, which White said was informative.

Her takeaway was “You can't just get over your trauma,” she said. “We need to really pay attention to our body and the signs that our body is really giving us to support our journey through healing.

Bassett's presentation on trauma and the body. People sit in rows at tables. At the front of the room is a projector with Bassett's slides. Bassett is to the left at a podium.
Emily Bollinger
Bassett's presentation on trauma and the body.

A group of Unit 5 educators also was in attendance. Kelly Winter, a family coordinator for the district, was among them. She said she’s attended the forums every year, since before starting at Unit 5.

Winter said it’s a great resource.

“I mean, it's free, they serve lunch, it's fabulous information,” she said. “I'm so excited to continue this tradition,” adding she takes ideas introduced at the forum back to Unit 5.

“I always feel so recharged learning about best practice in the mental health," she said. “So much of it is constantly changing, and it's really important to my work with my students and families to stay current.”

Paige Thompson, director of youth development at the Bloomington-Normal YMCA, said she came to figure out how the organization can address the increasing mental health problems the organization is seeing in youth. At the lunch break, she commented on the two sessions she went to.

“Both of them ... really focused on the increasing mental health problems in the community and just in the world in general, and the fact that it's just even being addressed and talked on, I think is important,” she said.

We depend on your support to keep telling stories like this one. WGLT’s mental health coverage is made possible in part by Report For America and Chestnut Health Systems. Please take a moment to donate now and add your financial support to fully fund this growing coverage area so we can continue to serve the community.

Melissa Ellin is a reporter at WGLT and a Report for America corps member, focused on mental health coverage.
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