In 2014, Dean Wattigny lost his bid for the 16th Judicial District Division A judge’s seat. If elected, Wattigny wanted to address the mental health issues he saw with people in the criminal justice system.
In some way, his loss in the election was New Iberia’s gain. Wattigny and his wife, Catherine Wattigny, decided to help bring awareness to the issue in their own way.
“I didn’t win, but we decided we’d try to do something about mental health anyway. I probably had a bigger impact if I hadn’t won to judge and tried to do something within that system,” he said.
After working more than 40 years in their respective professions, the couple founded their nonprofit, Iberia Mental Health Initiative, in New Iberia to educate the public about mental illness and reduce the stigma that’s associated with mental health.
Catherine Wattigny is a retired school nurse who often worked in special education, while Dean Wattigny is an attorney. As a nurse, Catherine Wattigny said she met families who had children with behavior disorders. It was during that time that she recognized the need for more mental health awareness.
“We realized, from our professions, how much of a need there was for good mental health and mental health education in our area. We just decided that we could start working on gathering people from the community who were like-minded to work together with us,” she said.
The Iberia Mental Health Initiative is composed of medical and mental health professionals, legal and law enforcement professionals, education personnel, clergy and other community supporters. To educate community members, the organization hosts informational seminars on a wide range of topics concerning mental health and monthly family support groups. Catherine Wattigny said her goal is to create public awareness and provide information on the resources that are available — whether that’s private or government funded.
The organization also conducts fundraisers throughout the year, including the Bayou Side Run. In 2022, more than 400 people were registered for the event to run in recognition of and in honor of friends and family members who are struggling with mental health issues.
“I think the biggest impact was all of the different people — different walks of life, not necessarily runners, coming together in support of others and in support of this cause,” said Dean Wattigny.
The Iberia Mental Health Initiative has also partnered with the Iberia Parish School Board and Heart for Iberia to create a proclamation addressing mental health in schools. Last year, they conducted three programs to educate teachers on self-care and recognizing potential behavior disorders in students.
The Wattignys both emphasized the increased need for resources since the pandemic, but that the pandemic has also decreased the stigma attached to mental illness after many athletes and celebrities have expressed their struggles. Catherine Wattigny said that, on a national level, awareness and advocacy seems to have a “trickle-down effect.”
“We want to get the message out that mental illness is very common,” she said. “We want the public to know that they’re not alone and that there’s hope. There’s treatment. And, with proper treatment and support, they can live normal, healthy lives.”
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