Paramus Town Hall Event Provides a Forum for Stories and Advice on Mental Health
Leaders from local government, schools, business, and mental health care organizations and citizens filled the Paramus High School auditorium Thursday night for the area’s first Town Hall Meeting addressing the stigma associated with mental illness.
The event was led by the Paramus Stigma-Free Zone task force, a group whose mission is to educate the community and remove the stigma associated with mental illness. Speakers shared personal experiences with mental illness, while a panel discussed symptoms, resources, and their own professional – and personal – experiences with mental diseases. There were also resource tables featuring information from local mental health providers, support groups, and schools.
“Our goal was to create an environment where people would be comfortable to share information about mental illness with those who have experienced it first hand—whether they themselves have a mental illness, they have a family member who has, or are professionals who help people get on the road to recovery,” stated Mary Ann Uzzi, task force chairperson.
The event lived up to the goals Uzzi shared with a full evening of information and advice. Task force member Bernadette McCausland led an icebreaker in which audience participants stood when called upon to representative different mental health statistics.
A group of first graders from Ridge Ranch School created artwork that depicted different statements about what stigma meant to them. The class was present to hand out the flyers, and then presented a poem with their teachers. An attendee noted that it was “touching” to see young people who “get it”. Two former students from Paramus High School were also among the audience and shared a public service video that they created to draw attention to the issue of stigma.
Paramus Mayor Richard LaBarbiera was present and shared his support for the coalition, noting that progress was evident by the sheer number of attendees.
Cynthia Chazen, a task force member, shared a personal story about her brother’s battle with mental illness and eventual suicide. Later, the panel addressed the story noting that family members should not feel at fault. “It’s not that you failed. Sometimes it’s very hard to reach a person…with mental illness.” She cautioned everyone to pay attention and listen to family members or friends who may be exhibiting signs of a mental illness, including advice to “stay concerned and connected”. Chazen also noted that while everyone may think jokes about someone with mental illness are funny, they are laughing at someone who has a disease.
Panel moderator John Uzzi introduced the expert panelists who included Joe Masciandaro, President/CEO of Care Plus NJ, Inc.; Bob Jones, CEO of Children’s Aid & Family Services; Ken Rota, Superintendent of the Paramus School System; Irene Maury, Coordinator of Paramus Division of Human Services; and Kristin Benedict, Paramus Resident and individual in recovery. The panelists answered questions supplied by the audience.
“It doesn’t happen to families in Paramus. The reality is that it does,” Jones stated in opening remarks regarding mental illness and substance abuse.
Benedict shared details about her disease progression from severe depression through addiction to prescription medications. “Clean” for two years, she devotes time to maintaining her own mental health and recovery, as well as helping others to do the same.
Masciandaro noted that, “You need to treat co-occurring disorders [mental health issues and addiction] simultaneously. In the past it was standard practice to treat the most acute disorder first. That thinking has changed.”
The panelists discussed the role of stigma, with Masciandaro stating, “Ignorance is a choice. Mental illness is not a moral failing. It is an illness like heart disease. Your brain is sick.”
Jones included, “Stigma causes shame. It’s a reaction based on fear, based on ignorance.”
Maury shared advice that individuals should reach out to their Human Services department. “It’s their role to guide you to the right resources for help—whether it’s for you, a friend, or family member,” she included.
The conversation later shifted to children and teens. Statistics were shared that many initial signs of a mental illness appear in the teen years. Rota noted that the Paramus school system encourages students to ask questions or bring concerns to any adult they are comfortable speaking to in the school system and they will link them to the appropriate help.
“Students who have a mental illness are not treated any differently than those who are being treated for a physical illness,” Rota shared.
All of the panelists agreed that open conversation about mental illness and addiction is important to have within the family unit. Children should feel comfortable talking about it at home, and feel confident that their parents are listening. They also all agreed parents should “do whatever is necessary to keep their children safe,” and even consider drug testing at home if they feel there is an issue.
The panelists shared some signs to look for in a child who may be having mental health or addition issues including isolation, avoidance, and changes in habits and friends.
Signs of suicide were shared in response to a question from the audience. The panelists noted that some of the signs include hopelessness, despair, loss of ambition, giving away personal possessions or money, self-hurting, and risk-taking behavior.
They each recommended reaching out to Human Services, school officials, Bergen County’s 262-HELP line, or others for help should they recognize these symptoms in a friend or loved one.
The panel closed with some thoughts on how to eliminate stigma:
-Create awareness about mental diseases.
-Provide help to those who need it.
-Get educated and stay informed.
-Spread the word to others; open up the conversation.
-Have compassion and don’t judge.
The panel session closed noting that without help “the illness can consume the family,” and that “miracles happen when everyone works together.”
Susan Buckley, a task force member who suffers from bipolar disorder, also shared her poignant story on “having nothing to lose” once she lost so much to the disease. Her story served to help others feel empowered to reach out for help.
The event closed with the group taking a pledge to end stigma from a national organization called BringChange2Mind.
Uzzi remarked about how the coalition’s message has reached so many in such a short time. She read an email that she received within the first week of launching their website; it was from a former Paramus High School student who suffers from a mental illness and pledged his support for the movement.
“There’s something that is preventing people from getting help. That ‘thing’ is stigma. We need to break down stigma so people are as comfortable discussing mental illness and getting help as they would with any physical illness,” Uzzi stated in a conversation at the event.
In Paramus, it seems like they are working hard to breaking down that “thing” as a community.