They weren’t at the state Capitol on Wednesday to lobby a bill. They were here to let lawmakers and the public know they exist and shouldn’t be discriminated against because they have a mental illness or a substance use disorder.

The Hold Up Your Hand event sponsored by state Healthcare Advocate Victoria Veltri, Child Advocate Jamey Bell, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and Connecticut Turning to Youth and Families focused on the need to reduce the discrimination and stigma attached to seeking treatment for mental illness or substance abuse.

“One of the biggest barriers between overcoming the disparity in treatment of mental health and substance use and traditional physical health or medical services is really discrimination,” Veltri said. “And the ongoing stigma individuals feel and families feel.”

A report released by Veltri’s office in January found that the state’s system of delivering mental health and substance abuse treatment is at best “fractured.”

But Wednesday’s event was about more than the treatment and insurance system, it was about the barriers society and individuals create.

Dan Olguin, a Central Connecticut State University student, said that when he would approach a professor to ask for an accommodation, he was made to feel like he just “confessed to being part of a conspiracy.”

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Olguin suffers from bipolar disorder. He explained that students who are not always able to keep up with the workload because of a mental or physical illness can receive an accommodation from a professor.

He said that when he would ask his professors for an accommodation, their expression would change from “carefree to what I can only interpret as cautious seriousness.” But he was brave enough to ask for an accommodation when some other students were unaware they could make such a request.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 45 percent of students stop attending college because of mental health problems.

“I know who I am and it’s not always what I’ve been told,” Olguin said. “I’m less violent, crazy, and more disciplined than almost everyone my age who doesn’t have a mental health diagnosis.”

He said he found it difficult to make friends in college. He said there were people who seemed nice and were potential friend material, but he believed he couldn’t trust them. Then he eventually began opening up and decided to fight back. 

“I believe for stigma to be completely erased people with mental health diagnosis need to step forward and show they are not like what the stigma says they are,” Olguin said.

Karrie McAvoy, whose children were sexually abused and suffer from a variety of mental health conditions because of it, said there needs to be a better understanding of mental illness and what causes it.

“Even many emergency room personnel at Connecticut hospitals were not equipped to engage with children of PTSD or the whole mental illness realm,” McAvoy said. “We need to treat mental illness as if it was like any other medical condition.”

She said children need to be able to move forward with their diagnosis without the stigma placed on them by society and the medical system. She said putting up barriers hinders their ability to get help.

Greg Williams, who is in recovery and hasn’t used drugs or alcohol for 11 years, knows all too well how difficult it is to get treatment. He said he probably wouldn’t be here today if he didn’t get frustrated with the discrimination that exists around people with substance abuse disorders.

Christine Stuart photo

While recovering from a near fatal car crash, Williams asked his father if the insurance company picked up the tab. When he learned they hadn’t, he asked his father to pursue an appeal.

The insurance company would only authorize five days of treatment while the professional health care provider recommended at least four weeks of intensive in-patient treatment. Williams eventually got into a long-term treatment plan, but some of his friends weren’t as lucky. He said he attended six wakes for friends of his in Newtown, where there was a need for mental health or substance abuse treatment long before Dec. 14, 2012, the day a 21-year-old gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed 26 people.

In an effort to get his message to a larger audience, Williams directed a documentary called “The Anonymous People.” The documentary is about the stigma of being in recovery and why the mass participation in these 12-step anonymous groups has been kept secret for so long.

“This passionate new public recovery movement is fueling a changing conversation that aims to transform public opinion, and finally shift problematic policy toward lasting solutions,” a plot summary reads.

Williams is trying to raise enough money to get the film screened in Hartford.