Roundtable brings focus to region’s mental health concerns

Published 5:55 pm Friday, March 31, 2023

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Hampton Roads’ leaders came together Thursday for an in-depth discussion on violence prevention, mental health and the effects of unaddressed trauma. 

Hampton Roads Planning District Commission hosted the March 30 Hampton Roads Mayors and Chief Administrative Officers Violence Prevention Roundtable at the Regional Building in Chesapeake, which allowed for candid discussions on the importance of mental health.

Hampton City Manager Mary Bunting opened the floor discussing the importance of speaking out on both mental health and violence, but also the importance of not equating the two.

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“There has been some media attention recently about linking mental health and gun violence, and that’s not what we’re necessarily trying to do with this,” Bunting made clear at the meeting.


Professionals speak out

Colonial Behavioral Health Executive Director David A. Coe thanked everyone for making this conversation possible, speaking on how mental health and violence issues are being approached.

“There always seems to be everytime there’s a violent crime in the community that there’s a group that points to, ‘We need more mental health services,’ there’s a group that points that ‘We need gun control.’ I’m not here to talk about the gun issue, but it’s the community issue,” Coe said. “I would begin by saying that the violence prevention framework that is at everybody’s table is evidence-based practice. And I applaud you for making this framework.”

The framework provided at the meeting detailed key factors that lead to gun violence. These include concentrated poverty, the judicial system, access to guns, mental health, family dysfunction and poor conflict resolution. Each of these factors come with additional layers of issues. 

Coe addressed the recent attention placed on schools due to the constant school shootings across the country and emphasized how these tragic situations are different based on the community.

“I would encourage us to go back to the framework and remember that, what happens in the schools is not in a vacuum and what happens in a neighborhood is not in a vacuum and what happens in a circle of patients does not occur in a vacuum – it occurs within the context of a broader community,” Coe explained. “If an individual’s life experiences are filled with one traumatic event after another, it has an effect upon that person’s physical health, it affects a person’s behavioral health, it affects their family’s health. It almost always affects their social economic health and the environmental health of the community in of itself.”

Western Tidewater Community Services Board Clinical Director Tanetta Hassell explained that preventative measures focused on bringing evidence-based training throughout the community address adverse childhood experiences.

“Negative outcomes in our community, such as gun violence, are really rooted in trauma,” Hassell said. “By doing training to educate the right person, or even professionals or even mayors such as yourselves, you really start to look at the root of trauma.”

Hassell also discussed staff shortages affecting mental health facilities using her “Mental Health First Aid” program, which is designed to respond to behavioral health and mental health crises, as an example.

“I oversee this program, but I can’t keep it staffed. There’s so many amazing resources, but because of staff shortages, we can’t even get into the community and make them [as] broad as we would like for them to be,” she said. “So that’s another point that I’d like to drag home for us to consider – how can we bridge those gaps.”


In-depth conversations

Addressing the deadly impacts of trauma, Coe reflected on his time as director of an out of state Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Crisis Center where he worked with hundred of families. His most “poignant” memory was of a six-month-old baby boy who was being “fussy” with his mother properly correcting him.

“But I watched this six-month-old baby boy turn red, clench the fist until the knuckles and the palms of the fist were white, and trembled in rage. This is a six-month-old,” Coe emotionally recalled. “What kind of trauma had that child seen? To be there already? And I can only wonder where that child, who would be 35-years-old today, where that child is now and what is the world around them and what is their pain?”

Hampton Mayor Donnie R. Tuck talked about his own unaddressed trauma at the meeting. 

Tuck recalled spending Christmas Eve with his grandmother as a kid when they both survived an incident involving his uncle by marriage “pounding at the door,” trying to get inside the house while making threats to kill her, and even the sound of gunfire.

“I just never got past that experience. From that time forward, I never told my parents about it,” Tuck said. “But every time I heard gunfire, I thought I was going to die. I would have the rapid-heart rate and things like that. I share that because there is trauma that’s not addressed and I can speak from my own experience.”

Bunting pointed to professionals trying to follow up with young people who experience trauma, but with their own families sometimes being the wall preventing them from getting their needed help.

“Just for one example — we had a young person witness the murder of their best friend, and our school followed up with the mother of that child, a week or so later, to make sure that they are following up with the resources they connected them to… and the mother said ‘My kid’s fine. He doesn’t need anything,’” Bunting said. “How many of us can witness the murder of a best friend and be okay? And I have to believe the mother just didn’t understand, really, the lack of respect… but that doesn’t mean the child is fine.”

She said they had not talked about the educational component.

“I think us as a community coming forward and emphasizing that we all need help sometimes and here’s how you access it,” Bunting said. “Just because they seem fine on the outside, doesn’t mean they are fine on the inside. And we shouldn’t make them feel bad if they’re not fine on the inside, and really try to help them.”

Along with noting the creation of the new Public Safety Committee, Suffolk Mayor Michael D. Duman praised the provided framework while noting fixing all these issues won’t be an immediate overnight process.

“What I am looking for is, what can we implement now,” Duman said. “A lot of what we talk about is kind of, I call it ‘Pie in the Sky’ stuff. We’re not going to get everybody a job tomorrow. We’re not going to change the family structures tomorrow. We’re not going to be able to have mental health commissions that can address this.” 

Duman said knowing that there is a limited resource towards mental health commissions, he asked what can be done by non-mental health commissions.

“Even with city staff that we have and school staff and bring them together to try to address the problem,” he said.