Pa. Rep. Jennifer O’Mara shares views on mental health

By Valerie Battaglia

The newly elected Pennsylvania Rep. Jennifer O’Mara (D-165) shared her thoughts on Pennsylvania’s lack of mental health care treatment during her visit to the Marple campus on Nov. 21.

Mental health legislation is one of O’Mara’s top priorities as the representative for the 165th district, because of her personal connection to the issue, she said. Early in her adolescence, she lost her father, a firefighter, to a gun-suicide.

“We now know many first responders are dealing with PTSD,” O’Mara said.

In a research bulletin released by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in May of this year, it was estimated that 30 percent of first responders develop behavioral conditions, including PTSD.

According to O’Mara, the first step in alleviating the stigma of seeking treatment for mental and behavioral health is opening the platform for discussion. She said that seeking mental health care should be as second nature as calling the doctor when you have a cold.

“What we find is, people strugglingespecially with substance abuse disorderisolate. Their families isolate.” O’Mara said. “It isn’t just the person struggling [with the condition], the entire family is affected.”

In 2014, the Biomedical Center published a study examining the relation between substance use and loneliness. Researchers found participants abusing substances to cope with loneliness, as well as increasing their levels of social isolation.

Not only does O’Mara find it essential for individuals and their loved ones to seek help, but she also stressed the importance of finding someone to talk to, especially those who have lost someone to suicide.

“A lot of people who lose someone to suicide start to wonder if there’s anything they could’ve done differently,” O’Mara said. “Carrying around that blame doesn’t allow you to grieve.”

According to a study done in 2017 at the University of Leipzig, prolonged grief without intervention correlates with an increased risk of depression and functional impairment.

While the study does acknowledge the need for further research in relieving the burden of grief in children and adolescents, O’Mara believes bringing the discussion into our public schools would benefit these victims.

“The way we have physical education tied in with gym, mental health should be a part of that curriculum,” O’Mara said.

O’Mara also discussed the importance of teaching children how to discuss their emotions, as well as warning signs to look for in their loved ones.

Increasing the school’s mental health resources goes hand-in-hand with the issue of school safety for O’Mara.

“They’re all saying we should arm our teachers or put rocks in classrooms,” O’Mara said. “How about we give schools more social workers and more counselors?”

In the American Counseling Association’s most recent analysis on the effectiveness of school counseling concluded that accessible mental health services were a vital part of student’s academic success.

“Many teachers know what signs to look for,” O’Mara noted, “but their classroom sizes are so large that they’re just trying to control the classroom and keep it managed. They’re not able to pay attention to the nuanced things happening in the classroom.”

O’Mara believes smaller classrooms would allow teachers to foster deeper and more meaningful connections with their students. Forming personal ties with their teachers may encourage students to speak with them on issues they’re facing outside of the classroom, according to O’Mara.

The Children Welfare League of America analyzed the connection between attachment and trauma. Their study found that children lacking secure attachments to caregivers face many challenges, including the risk of developing an attachment disorder. The lack of a secure attachment may also present itself as an inability to connect with their own children later in life.

“I’ve done a lot of research,” O’Mara said. “Children that have one adult that they can feel a safe connection to are more likely to overcome trauma, should they experience it. A teacher is often that line of connection that some children have.”

O’Mara concluded her thoughts by addressing the way we discuss suicide, not only as a state, but as individuals.

“Whenever I talk about my dad, or anyone, I often say they died by suicide, not that they committed suicide,” O’Mara said.

The word “commit,” as O’Mara explained, tends to carry a negative connotation. It’s often used when referring to criminal activity, such as “committing crimes.”

“Change the way you talk about it, “O’Mara recommended. “If you say that they died by suicide, you’re allowing yourself to be the person that is in mourning.”

O’Mara said that she wants people to not only think about how they discuss suicide, but also encourage people to speak more openly on the topic in general.

“When we isolate ourselves, we allow the stigma to grow,” O’Mara said. “We need to work on being out there and letting it be a part of our conversations.”

Contact Valerie Battaglia at communitarian@dccc.edu