Orlando Conference Focused on Support Systems

November 23, 2016       Andy Segedin      

Mental-health professionals, musicians and poets gathered in Orlando, Fla., to discuss mental-health needs, counseling and ways individuals from all walks of life can help themselves and their communities. The recent supporter conference was hosted by To Write Love On Her Arms (TWLOHA), an organization focused on assisting those battling depression, addiction, self-injury and thoughts of suicide. The event took place just a month after the deadly Pulse nightclub shooting that killed or injured more than 100 people in the city.

Orlando has been important to TWLOHA, according to founder Jamie Tworkowski, and space was built into the conference’s curriculum to discuss the aftermath of the shooting and other recent tragedies. TWLOHA is headquartered just an hour east of Orlando in Melbourne, Fla.

“We had a couple of mental health professionals who live and work in Orlando and did a panel on the days following the Pulse tragedy and ongoing recovery and what it looks and feels like through their eyes,” Tworkowski said. “We thought it was special to not just talk about it in general, but to talk to people who Orlando is their home.”

The style and content of the conference was not foreign to events that TWLOHA has hosted on college campuses, according to Tworkowski. Opening the conference to anyone who wished to attend was a first, however. About 200 attendees from 27 states and three countries participated in the two-and-a-half-day conference, a turnout that allowed for intimacy in terms of attendees connecting with one another, he said.

The supporter conference was born out of frequent questions TWLOHA has received from individuals seeking ways to make a difference in their communities. Learning about depression, addiction, eating disorders and suicide, along with relate barriers sufferers might face in seeking help, were among the primary focuses.

Attendees’ backgrounds were divided between those who are working toward their own recovery and those looking to leverage whatever influence they might have in their community, Tworkowski said. Some attendees, for instance, were interested in pursuing careers in counseling and therapy and attended to gain a better sense of what such work entails.

Just fewer than half of the attendees were college or graduate-school students and more than 80 percent were age 35 or younger. About one in six (16 percent) of attendees were either studying to be a counselor or social worker or already working in the field.

“It’s a lot of young people, maybe they haven’t yet established their career, from the outside it might seem like they don’t have a ton of influence,” he said. “But there is value wherever we are with whoever we are with and whatever connections we have.”

Self-care, the need to focus on one’s self while aiding someone else, and analyzing what mental health and recovery means from the perspectives of counselors, musicians and artists were themes that emerged throughout the conference. The hashtag #SupCon was active throughout the conference and videos from the event can be found on Livestream.

Attendees were arranged at tables, not in classroom-style rows, to promote interaction and there is optimism that bonds created during the conference can also grow and move the conversation around mental health forward.

Liz Eddy, director of communications for Crisis Text Line in New York City, was among the conference speakers. Eddy, in an interview shortly before the conference, said that her priorities heading in were to create and awareness for the text line and to provide those interested with helping at outlet. The text line’s volunteer program offers a 34-hour training course to come aboard and contribute as a volunteer crisis counselor.

Counseling assistance, better awareness of issues and directing those struggling with issues toward appropriate help are all current needs in the crisis-management field, Eddy said. Recent events such as the shootings in Orlando and Dallas have left a mark — creating feelings of fear and confusion to those near and far from affected areas. “Anything that feels like a crisis to an individual is a crisis to us,” Eddy said. “If you are across the country, it doesn’t mean that your feelings aren’t valid.”