Letter to the Editor: Standing Up to Councilor's Stigmatization

October 26, 2023

The following is a Letter to the Editor of the Westerly Sun. It was submitted by Dan Fitzgerald on October 26, 2023.

I write this letter as a Westerly resident and as a public health professional. I am trained as a certified substance misuse prevention specialist and hold degrees in behavioral and public health. I am a patient and a board member of Wood River Health and a lifelong advocate for decreasing stigma surrounding mental health and substance misuse.

Councilors using stigmatizing language and spreading misinformation in public settings does harm to our community. During the Town Council’s special meeting regarding the Tower Street School project, a councilor stated “I don’t see how Wood River fits into this. You walk in, get your mandatory depression and anxiety test, then we get 1,000 more kids on Prozac,” and earlier in the meeting saying “so you move a lot of Prozac” in response to a physician describing Wood River Health’s evidence-based standard of care related to screening patients for suicide, depression, and substance use disorder.

Patient health questionnaires are a diagnostic tool for mental health disorders used by health care professionals. These patient screening tools are completed in healthcare settings, depending on the results, patients are connected to a behavioral health professional.

As an example: A dental patient at Wood River Health comes in for a routine visit. They receive a standard health questionnaire. The patient discloses they are experiencing severe depression and thoughts of suicide. The patient’s dentist then provides a warm hand-off to an in-house behavioral health clinician for an assessment. This patient now receives additional services. This simple questionnaire is designed as a “no wrong door” approach to care; it’s not designed as a pipeline to pump out additional medications as suggested by a member of the Town Council.

Wood River Health has been a pivotal partner in a five-year county-wide initiative called “Washington County Zero Suicide.” This initiative has helped ramp up patient health questionnaires as a model standard of practice in our county. In 2019, nearly no patients were screened, and as of September 2023, 257,553 patients across our county have been screened and if necessary were connected to life-saving behavioral health supports.

Washington County has the highest suicide death rate compared to any other Rhode Island county. According to the American Psychiatric Association, more than half of people with a mental illness do not receive the help they need. Oftentimes, people delay accessing care due to concerns about being treated differently, citing stigma, prejudice and discrimination as barriers to getting help. Stigmatizing comments and spreading misinformation because of a lack of understanding or fear does harm to our community.

For over 45 years, Wood River Health has provided high-quality, affordable medical, dental and behavioral healthcare to patients just like me. Wood River Health is a national model for excellence for health care delivery and a leader in the promotion of community well-being. Wood River Health is already our community’s home for health; a larger presence here in Westerly is something we all should welcome with open arms.

Daniel Fitzgerald