It was early in 2014. I was nosing around in the dairy section of the Earth Fare here in Huntsville Alabama when I heard, “Is your name Daniel?”. I turned to see who was asking the question, and before I could answer, I heard “little orange fish, right?”. I had just started Little Orange Fish a few weeks prior, and had been getting a lot of visibility through local news media, so this wasn’t a completely odd occurrence. This time though, the curious inquiry was followed with a request. She asked if I could meet with a group from the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVdP) to discuss working together. I didn’t walk away from that brief exchange with any understanding of what working together might entail. Nonetheless, a few days later, I met with 5 or 6 folks from the SVdP. They told me a bit about ‘Voices of the Poor’ and their local initiative to help those with Serious Mental Illness (SMI) get timely care and treatment.
A couple months later, The Mental Health Center of Madison County (now called Wellstone Behavioral Health) joined the effort and offered a small space for us to meet. The charter of this small group, now 10 or so people, became to identify ‘gaps’ in the systems of care supporting the mentally ill here in North Alabama and, through engagement and collaboration with community stakeholders, try to fill those gaps. Soon, all of the police departments, Huntsville PD, Madison PD and the Madison County Sheriff’s Office, were at the table, as well as Huntsville Emergency Medical Services (HEMSI) and a number of other stakeholders including private counselors, medical doctors and concerned citizens. Indeed, one of the first major accomplishments of this group was to identify the need for specialized law enforcement training, and to help bring Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training to law enforcement departments across North Alabama.
This group, now called the North Alabama Mental Health Coalition (NAMHC), has grown to over 250 individuals to include representation from the City of Huntsville, Huntsville Hospital, the Veterans Association, Huntsville Fire and Rescue, each of the local universities, numerous non-profits and countless private care providers and concerned citizens. There are regularly fifty plus attendees, representatives from all corners of our community, at the monthly meetings*.
Little Orange Fish has been engaged with the coalition since its inception, and recently has taken on the task of leading the effort to increase public engagement and better coordinate efforts between the many stakeholders. Moving in this direction, we (Little Orange Fish) just redesigned the NAMHC website, NorthAlabamaMentalHealthCoalition.org, hoping to make it more engaging and easier to navigate. We are committed to continue to improve, maintain and provide content updates to the site. A simple but critical part of that will be to post the minutes from the monthly meetings.
In conjunction with the posting of those meeting minutes, I will be providing a synopsis of the coalition meetings here on the LOF site as part of our ‘Here for You’ initiative.
The basic format of these meetings is as follows: A week or so prior to every meeting the previous meeting minutes are distributed along with the agenda for the upcoming meeting. The general agenda includes: self introductions of attendees, often a guest speaker and followed by member led discussions regarding specific situations or areas of need relating to mental health and mental health care in the North Alabama. The meeting is brought to a close discussing new business and collaboration planning.
April’s meeting strayed a bit from this format in that standard business/member led discussions were handled first to allow for a special presentation given by the guest speaker Dr. Richard C. Shelton, M.D., Director of Research at UAB/HSV. The only business related discussion had was one led by me to introduce the newly revised website and to solicit feedback for improvements moving forward.
The remainder of the meeting was focused on the presentation by Dr. Shelton. where he presented his research group’s work from the past 12 years related to identifying and understanding potential blood based indicators for depression and suicide.
He introduced the topic by presenting a number of known factors that predict suicide. Those factors include current or prior depression, close family member(s) who died of suicide, or prior suicide attempts. He suggested that if we wait until a depression diagnosis is made, more than 50% will have a lifelong depression problem. And waiting until someone attempts suicide, he points out, is not an acceptable approach, as 79% of people die on their first attempt. The solution he proposes is to develop more reliable methods to predict depression and suicidality, so early interventions and proven preventative measures can be taken.
Dr. Shelton spoke of the mechanisms by which environmental stimuli including trauma can chemically modify the DNA that determines our mental health and behavior. As such he and his team have approached the problem by investigating genomic activity in the brain as it relates to depression and suicide. They’ve developed a method of extracting exosomes, (mediators of intercellular communication in health and disease produced by all cell types ) from blood cells, and analyzing them for the information they carry. They found that there are sets of microRNAs (factors that regulate gene expression), which are commonly found in the exosomes that are specific to depression and/or suicidality. They believe that these findings show promise for the development of biomarker tests to identify risks for depression and suicide.
Their current research is focused on trying to understand how childhood trauma affects the production of these microRNA’s and if those effects result in indicators that are common between adolescents and adults. Dr Shelton said that they are in need of more participants for the study and asked that the coalition members help identify candidates to participate in the ongoing research effort.
* Meetings are held every 2nd Tuesday of the month at 11:00 am in the ‘Community Room’ at Wellstone, 4040 Memorial Parkway SW Huntsville, AL 35802 and are open to the public. Newcomers are encouraged to share their stories, interests, and capabilities, as they pertain to health of the local community.