Mental Wellness Fair features frank discussions on mental health and struggles

Ryan Fitzmaurice
Cowley’s Mental Wellness Fair, held  Saturday in the Log Gym, featured a frank, nuanced, intimate and varied discussion on mental illness and addiction.

The event featured a panel of Dr. Ralph Louis, a clinical psychologist for the Big Horn Basin Counseling Center; Irish Moore, a Certified Peer Specialist for the Volunteers of America in Sheridan; and Carol Bell, a Professional Licensed Counsel for Foundations Counseling in Cody.

Questions were as varied as the topic of mental health itself.

Louis answered a question on how to adapt to a new normal after suffering from mental illness and addiction. He said appreciating the difficulty of the task is important, stating that the normality that existed before the illness or addiction will no longer exist.

“Helping people move forward into a new way of being is really what’s required and that’s really hard work,” Louis said. “So, reminding friends and family how hard it is to invent yourself after a major life change can be helpful in them developing a new way of living.”

Moore shared her own remarkable story of recovery from addiction.

“At the end of my addiction I was charged with 18 felonies. It was a lifechanging moment for me, and by all rights, I should have been in jail for the rest of my life,” Moore said. “I was given an opportunity and that opportunity was given to me by God and me having a different calling in my life.”

Moore said that those looking to heal must be willing to be uncomfortable. 

“For me it was changing people, places and things. Literally every single one of them. I do not hang with the social group I used with, period. You have to be really strong, and you have to stay strong to those boundaries,” Moore said. “Change is really hard, uncomfortable work, and if you’re not uncomfortable you’re probably not making that change.”

The intimacy of the panel inspired incredible intimacy from those who attended the event.

Kate Leonhardt, who gave the Chronicle permission to use her name, shared her own story when asked how a child suffering with issues might present themselves and what those looking after them can look for.

“I was molested as a child for many, many years. I can tell you that I didn’t let people in. I would come off as quiet and reserved. I would hide when people came about, because I didn’t have a safe place at home,” Leonhardt said. “Because my abuse was in my home, I remember people txhinking I was weird or stand-offish. I just didn’t let anybody in. It made me change.”

Bell shared her own experience of what it took to be present with her teenage son when the panel was asked how to be there with someone who doesn’t want help. Moore shared that she lost her son to suicide.

“If you’re going to be present to them, you have to double down on self-care. If you are loving and supporting someone who doesn’t want help, you better be eating right, you better be going to bed on time,” Bell said. “Being present with someone who doesn’t want help is the hardest thing I had to do.”

Community efforts were focused on during the event, with panelists and participants seeking a community-wide approach to the issue.

Bell advocated for Celebrate Recovery, a Christian organization focused on tackling addiction, which has made a big difference in her life.

“It’s not as readily available to the Big Horn Basin area as it is in other parts of the state, but all it takes is a handful of people to put their all into it and get it started, and you will be amazed at the amount of people who show up and want to put in that work,” Bell said. “If there’s not one in that area, calling up the closest Celebrate Recovery and asking how to get started could really change a community.”

Louis said there used to be greater collaboration between the Big Horn Basin Counseling Center, law enforcement and other community agencies, but with less personnel and tighter funding, that effort has been struggling recently. 

“With the reduction of resources and money, people are stretched really thin, low staffing levels and overworked. It doesn’t work as well as it used to. We used to have people meet with us on a weekly basis to collaborate and focus on developing resources,” Louis said. “People are just overwhelmed and don’t have the time.”

When asked on why schools don’t put more focus on mental wellness, Louis advocated for the idea.

“Why don’t we have mental fitness classes in school like we do physical fitness? I often wonder why we don’t do more interventions in schools?” Louis asked. “It’s a new thing, that we’re thinking of these problems like this. Helping people with their mental fitness and their physical fitness can be combined. They are both as important as the other. We are one body. One person. We can’t do well if we don’t have both.”

There are resources available for those who need them. When Leonhardt shared more about herself later in the event and stated how difficult it was for her to find the resources needed to afford counseling, Louis stated that she is welcomed at the Big Horn Basin Counseling Center.

“We will provide service regardless of anybody’s ability to pay. That is true across all community mental health centers,” Louis said.