CLARK, NJ — One of the greatest challenges for treating mental illness, said Carolyn Beauchamp, president of The Mental Health Association in New Jersey, is the stigma so commonly attached with mental health issues. People shy away from what they don’t understand, according to Beauchamp, which is why labels like “crazy” or “scary” get tossed around, rather than the reality of the situation: People with mental health issues are just like anybody else.
The difference is, at the moment, they’re suffering from an illness.
The Association, which is in the process of moving its headquarters to Springfield, tries to cut down on the popular, negative narrative. Instead, their members like to foster dialogue on how to help those who are affected.
That’s why the Association will be partnering with another county non-profit, the Cranford-based Monarch Housing Associates, to host their 8th annual Walk/Run on Saturday, Nov. 7, at Clark’s Oak Ridge Park, with the theme of “Fight Stigma, Walk For Awareness.”
“Our main issue is how we can improve treatment options and access, and make sure that, for adults and children who have mental illness, they can get the kind of treatment they need in New Jersey. The biggest problem, for getting funding in mental health services, is that mental health is seen as — it’s stigmatized. We’ve fought very hard to have it seen as a disease, an illness, rather than however people were seeing it before,” said Beauchamp. “The message is that people with these mental health illnesses are just like everybody else, they want the same things. They want to work, they want to be a part of the community, they want to have a significant other. We’re trying to normalize it.”
When mental health is stigmatized, according to Beauchamp, it creates a domino-like effect across the state, convincing leadership to decide against funding and causing confusion among everyone, including people with mental health issues. That’s why the Association refers to treatment as “wellness and recovery,” and believes that anyone “can be a part of the community and recover,” said Beauchamp, even those with chronic problems, if they’re treated and supported in the right way.
Helping those with mental illness is a goal shared by Monarch Housing Associates, which builds housing for homeless people with disabilities so they can “live independently,” said Richard Brown, the organization’s CEO. There’s plenty of overlap between homelessness and mental illness: According to NJ Counts 2015, more than two in five homeless people reported having a disability, including mental health issues and substance abuse disorders.
That overlap, said Brown, is why Monarch Housing Associates and the Association are working together on this year’s Walk/Run.
“Now’s the time to be aware of the pressing needs for people with mental illness and people who are homeless. We’re really trying to raise awareness that we can do more to help those with the greatest need — not dissimilar from what the Pope was talking about, last month — and bring those issues to the table, where they’ve been put aside or overlooked,” said Brown. “The unfortunate piece is the demand is always greater than the number of units that are available. Most of the developments we do, the numbers are anywhere from five to 10 people for every available unit, so we continue to need to build more, and use that as an opportunity to help people live independently.”
Monarch Housing Associates, as well as the Association, operates in all 21 counties in the state, and recently completed a 120-unit residence in Edison, where 30 of the units were set aside for the homeless.
But the organization is also on the cusp of several projects in Union County, said Brown. They’ve looked in Elizabeth for housing opportunities, hope to start a project in Plainfield next year, and have completed residences for senior citizens in Garwood.
And at the core of what both non-profits do, including the Association’s training and educating programs, is teaching people to be good neighbors and to help others in the community, who may be suffering from a mental illness.
The problems these people have, said Beauchamp, are no less different or serious than physical ones.
“If you see someone having a heart attack, or if you’re at the gym and you suddenly see somebody fall down, you’re going to run over and try to help them. If you’re at the gym, say you’ve been going there three times a week, you get to know the people who are there around the same time you are. If you see somebody looking worse and worse, you know something’s wrong,” said Carolyn. “People want to help, but they don’t know what to do. So what we teach them is similar to physical first aid. How to approach a person who appears to be struggling, what to say.”
Those are the kind of discussions, said Beauchamp, they can have at the upcoming Walk/Run, where hundreds of people can raise awareness about the stigmas that the industry faces. Both organizations are trying to make it a fun day, in one of their first county events — there will be music, family fun activities, face painting and more — but the theme of the day is about seriously changing people’s lives, for the better.
“We’re trying to have much more of a presence including people from Union County, because that’s going to be our home base,” said Beauchamp. “We operate on a team system. We ask people to be team captains, and their job is to bring walkers. It’s a fun day. People put it on their calendars and look forward to it, and they’re part of something significant. It’s a fundraiser for MHANJ. They know they’re helping out our organization, and we’re one of the biggest stigma fighters in the state, so they’re very happy with that.”