It is no secret why so many folks feel totally overwhelmed during the holiday season. The demands are nonstop - trees to trim, parties to attend, meals to cook. And let's not even talk about the unending mall-crawl, all in an effort to buy the perfect gift with money you don't have.

It's enough to trigger a mood swing as unpredictable as a winter snowstorm. And I'm referring to the people who claim to be infused with healthy doses of holiday cheer.

But for those running on emotional, economic and social fumes, this time of year can be downright debilitating.

That's why "Breaking the Silence: A Summit on Behavioral Health Within the African American Community" couldn't happen at a more appropriate time. The free event, the brainchild of State Sen. Vincent Hughes, runs today through tomorrow at the Convention Center and features a powerhouse lineup that includes actress Jenifer Lewis, author Michael Eric Dyson, Essence's Susan Taylor, Harvard psychologist Alvin Poussaint, and Philadelphia psychologist and author Robin L. Smith.

For once, a holiday event that's about healing, not hype.

No discrimination

Make no mistake, mental illness does not discriminate. All we have to do is look at the murderous rampage at Virginia Tech, the recent takeover of Hillary Clinton's campaign headquarters in New Hampshire, or this week's mall shootings in Omaha to understand that behavioral disorders are equal-opportunity afflictions.

Those are the dramatic tragedies that make the evening news. But not as visible are the everyday people who go about the day-to-day in pain, often showing no signs of the anguish within.

Hughes, who first put together the forum four years ago, says mental illness is a disabler that African Americans in particular suffer in silence.

"When folks come into my office, they are dealing with some very difficult situations," says Hughes, who has represented his West Philly district for 20 years. "When you bore through the stuff, it usually has to do with emotional content."

If a boy was abused as a child, that abuse may explain the anger and rage that triggers him to commit a violent crime as an adult, he says. And some mothers and fathers - too many - walk around like zombies, living in various states of depression after losing children to violence.

Other illnesses such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia often go untreated because people don't know how or where to get information and resources. It doesn't help that there's a stigma attached to admitting mental illness. They're ashamed to talk about it and often are dismissed as being "that crazy so-and-so."

So they suffer in silence.

But they don't have to. Hughes says when the last Breaking the Silence summit was held two years ago, he expected 1,000 people. More than 3,000 showed up.

And it wasn't for the coffee and Danish.

A breakthrough

Terence Batson, 44, was one of those people who attended the '05 summit. And it was life-changing. It helped him accept who he was and to be OK with himself.

For all of his adult life, Batson has suffered schizophrenia, one of the most debilitating of all behavioral disorders. He had a breakdown during Air Force basic training, and his life spiraled from there.

Yes, he says, he did hear voices, and they weren't telling him to be good.

Still, "I refused to believe that I had a mental illness," says Batson, who grew up in West Philly. "Being 18, 19 years old, I was in denial."

He exacerbated the problem with drugs and alcohol, a double whammy not uncommon to those struggling with behavioral issues.

After years of paranoid episodes and hospitalizations, Batson finally realized he needed help.

Now his life is all about structure and recovery - singles' ministry on Tuesday, Bible study on Wednesday, 12-step support group on Thursday. He credits that structure, along with his medication, proper rest and nutrition, and exercise, with keeping him balanced.

Does he still hear voices? Yep, but he's learned strategies to cope with them.

Forums such as Breaking the Silence helped to sustain Batson. These days, he even works with those with behavioral deficiencies, sharing information about available resources. Just as the summit did for him.

It was at the '05 conference that Batson decided that he would speak out about his own illness to inspire others.

"As a way," he says, "to share strength and hope."

For more information on the summit, call 215-471-3500 or go to www.breakingthesilenceonline.

org.

Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986 or ajohnhall@phillynews.com. To read her recent work, go to http://go.philly.com/annette