MENTAL HEALTH

Joe Giarrusso: In memory of my father, a renewed focus on mental health | Opinions and Editorials

Joe Giarrusso: In memory of my father, a renewed focus on mental health | Opinions and Editorials


It has been 10 years since my dad died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Nothing prepares relatives and close friends of the deceased for this type of trauma. Less than three weeks after he died — and when I was still numb — this paper was kind enough to publish a column in which we discussed Dad’s depression and the need to destigmatize mental health issues.

The old cliché “time heals all wounds” is wrong. The wounds are not as fresh, and maybe not as deep, but they certainly remain. Some wounds never heal.

An excruciating question is “Why did he die by suicide, particularly when he was so young and was living a good life?” No answer exists other than that his depression was too much to bear. And once you have come to that conclusion, more questions arise, such as what led to that level of depression and what, if anything, could I have done to prevent it. More questions without any good answers.

Besides trying to understand the “why,” my family also knows the pain of soldiering on. My mom lost her husband. My sister, too, lost her father. My wife lost her karaoke partner. My kids are robbed of knowing their grandfather, with whom they share so much.

Then, I went and did something arguably crazy: foregoing a busy law practice to become a district council member.

At my age, I no longer need day-to-day mentoring. But for those times when more experience matters, there would not be anyone better than my dad to consult, get honest (and I mean brutally honest) feedback, and, on those tough days, to hear him say, “This too shall pass.”

Those are the hard parts.

While there is nothing positive after losing a parent to suicide, there is self-examination and a new perspective. Our family and wide circle of friends cannot completely replace what we have lost but they are a reminder that we live in a city that is also a tight-knit community. We are forever grateful and fortunate to have that type of support.

What is equally clear, however, is how many people across the country, state and city lack the necessary support of and access to mental health services, and how thinly spread mental health providers are. My hope on Sept. 15 is to begin changing that.

The City Council has three orders of business before each meeting during which council members can elevate discussion of cultural significance, a nonprofit, a major accomplishment, etc. This Thursday, I have reserved all three orders of business to discuss mental health.

In the first third, I’ll talk about losing my dad and ask if any other council member wants to discuss personal mental health issues.

The second third of the presentation will feature the following mental health care stakeholders talking about their work and sharing information: The City of New Orleans, Institute of Women & Ethnic Studies, Metropolitan Human Services District, ViaLink, Crescent Care, National Alliance on Mental Illness, Odyssey House, New Orleans Children’s Bureau, New Orleans Youth Planning Board, Center for Resilience, NOLA Public Schools, Trauma Informed Schools, Children’s Hospital Grief and Trauma Center and UMC Trauma Psychology.

The last part will be United Way discussing how it plans on convening, hosting and advancing the work of the presenters, as well as other mental health groups. The primary goals for the collaborative are to understand and identify gaps in mental health care in the city. and then work to fill those gaps.

In September 2012, I wrote about having a moment to focus on increased awareness, education, dialogue and treatment.

The mental health stakeholders are willing collaborators to fine-tune that focus. With all that New Orleanians have lived through with Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Ida and a pandemic and related economic downturn, the need for New Orleans to be a leader on mental health services could not be clearer.

We, along with the stakeholders, are committed to helping all New Orleanians improve their mental health.

Joseph I. Giarrusso III represents District A on the New Orleans City Council. 

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