This past Thursday night, Newport Middle-High School and Sugar River Valley Regional Technology Center hosted their 4th annual Academic Expo.

Students showcased interactive displays of core academic classroom experiences. The middle and high school bands and choruses offered entertainment. There were cheerleaders, athletes, and creative displays from the art department. There was rumored to be a donkey, though I can’t say I saw it, but I did see a tarp on the floor where it was supposed to be. I couldn’t wait around for its grand entrance, you see, because I had been invited, along with many other local businesses and social service agencies, to staff a table for West Central Behavioral Health.

Most academic expos or fairs I’ve attended focus on students and their academic work, athletic involvement, or extra-curricular activities. This Expo, interestingly, brought the larger community into play. From manufacturers like Ruger, to organizations like The National Guard, to non-profits like Pathways of the River Valley and Southwestern Community Services, tables representing potential employers along with service providers students use every day were in attendance.

I felt like it was a Newport homecoming of some great significance for everyone there.

A scavenger hunt was going on where students had to find certain tables to get a check mark on a card to be entered into a raffle for a Chromebook. This ensured they made their way through the lengthy hallways and into every nook and cranny of many rooms throughout the school where students and local organizations shared information and promotional items like lanyards, masks, Frisbees, water bottles, and more.

The West Central table was visited often and with great enthusiasm by dozens of students and parents – and a few grandparents, too. I felt an outpouring of goodwill from parents and their children who made it a point to come speak with and thank me for the work West Central clinicians are doing in the Newport community. It surprised me to experience, firsthand, what seemed to be an almost irresistible need to speak openly about mental health. One mom said, “My daughter would be nowhere without you.” Another mom offered, “You’re the best,” then went on to tell me about her child’s life-changing experiences with her therapist. A soft-spoken older gentleman looked at me somewhat sideways, then smiled and said, “Keep it going” as he added his signature to our Newport appropriation petition request sheet without my having asked for it. One high-school student looked up from writing her email address on the Youth CAN Coalition signup sheet and said, “I’m one of your clients!” giving me two thumbs up and a huge smile. I can’t think of better words of encouragement for our cause, our mission, and our work to help people with mental illness, substance use disorders, and mobile crisis services. Remarkably, I felt embraced by the Newport community.

Whether all the table hosts felt a similar outpouring of emotion, I can’t say. I didn’t go around with a survey to ask. But, overall, this was a special night, a very special night. It highlighted a community’s need to speak openly about mental health.

Perhaps we’re turning a corner in our society and approaching a day when mental illness will be treated and discussed openly as any normal health care issue should be, without discrimination or bias towards those who suffer. When that day arrives, people will seek the help they need before a mental health crisis occurs, and before they turn to substances for relief.

Perhaps Newport has already made this positive turn on the societal road.

Perhaps it’s leading the way with open minds and open hearts to a new day when mental illness becomes understood as normal, as something we all face at some point in our lives. Perhaps this was a coming out, of sorts. A coming out for mental health, from the shadows into the light. Whatever it was, and whatever it portends, I’m encouraged, and ever so grateful to the School for having invited West Central and so many other community-based organizations to attend its annual Academic Expo.

Oh, and the chili and cornbread from the School cafeteria was mighty tasty, too.

Dave Celone of Sharon, Vt., is director of development & community relations for West Central Behavioral Health, one of 10 community behavioral health centers in New Hampshire, with clinics in Claremont, Lebanon, and Newport. Dave may be reached at dcelone@wcbh.org.

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