Philadelphia is hosting a major event and campaign to raise awareness and remove the stigma of mental illness.
Three 12-year-olds have committed suicide in Philadelphia in the past month, according to Leslie Davis, an emergency services coordinator in Philadelphia's Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services (DBHIDS) Emergency Services.
For Davis, the #IWillListen Day held today in LOVE Park is what's needed to prevent the incidents of childhood suicide and stigma associated with mental illness. The gathering helped cultivate understanding in the heart of Center City.
"We need to let everybody know we are here to help. People are giving up with no where to turn," said Davis, who attributes the economy and unemployment as mitigating factors that lead to suicide.
DBHIDS Commissioner Dr. Arthur Evans says listening is the key to combating the stigma associated with mental illness. #IWillListen Day facilitated just that. The event brought together 2,000 people to partake in a citywide exercise in listening. One in four Philadelphians are affected by mental illness, according to Evans.
"We truly believe if people listen they will reduce the stigma of mental illness," said Evans.
Four hundred people stopped to take an "I will listen" video pledge, two men played a game of chess as others tossed bean bags just steps away from the iconic LOVE Park statue. Nearby, Evans greeted former Congressman Patrick Kennedy who was already in Center City for a speaking engagement and was invited to stop by.
The youngest son of the late Senator Ted Kennedy shook hands, posed for photos and said he appreciated "walking in a park where the emblem is love and the mission is how do we love each other, and the beginning is to listen." Kennedy himself suffers from bipolar disorder.
#IWillListen Day has "a really spiritual component because it's changing attitudes toward mental illness," said Kennedy. He founded the Kennedy Forum on Community Mental Health and now lives in Brigantine, N.J. with his wife Amy and three small children.
The City of Philadelphia is the first U.S. city to host a citywide event that shines a light on mental illness and is serving as a model. #IWillListen Day was co-sponsored by the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the Thomas Scattergood Behavioral Health Foundation. The groups plan to take the effort to cities across the United States.
For Yolanda Smith the day brought further healing. The 53-year-old woman suffered from addiction for 31 years, but says mental illness was the underlying issue that kept her confused and unable to understand "the beast" within her. Smith is now a recovery coach and case manager at COMHAR, a childhood and adult outpatient facility offering mental health services.
"The word listen is so powerful," Smith said. "You have to listen to find the story."