FLORHAM PARK, NJ — Throughout the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of the Mental Health Association in New Jersey’s programming became crystal clear. Across the state, when individuals and families are struggling with the many challenges that come with mental illness and poor mental health, MHANJ is there to provide the education, support and compassion that make all the difference.
It was therefore no surprise that so many people came out Wednesday, Nov. 9, to celebrate the MHANJ at its 22nd annual Evening of Excellence at the Park Savoy Estate in Florham Park. The fundraiser event, featured spectacular food, an exciting raffle and silent auction, and fellowship, also served as an opportunity for the MHANJ to celebrate its many supporters and partners.
“This all started with Carolyn Beauchamp well over 30 years ago,” event Chairperson Rosemary Scoppetuolo said at the event, speaking of MHANJ’s president and CEO. “We spent a year putting this event together and we weren’t sure if people were going to show up, but you all showed up in a big way and it’s fabulous.”
A key feature of the evening was a videoed interview with television star Mayim Bialik.
We have a special treat tonight. We have a video of an interview with a national celebrity, Mayim Bialik,” MHANJ board of trustees Chairperson Harold B. Garwin said at the event, praising Bialik’s openness regarding her mental health journey. “She is being interviewed by one of our native sons, Steve Adubato.”
According to Bialik in the video, while there is certainly stigma associated with mental illness, she has always found it important to bring mental health issues into the light.
“I was always open about it, even though I was raised in a home with mental illness and addiction, and they were things we didn’t talk about,” Bialik said, adding that her “loving family” suffered from mental illness, substance abuse, and generational trauma resulting from her grandparents surviving pogroms and the Holocaust. “I grew up in an unpredictable home. … There was a lot of hiding, a lot of secrets.”
Despite this upbringing, Bialik feels it is important to address mental health issues — a step that can be especially difficult if those struggling don’t even realize that their struggles relate to mental illness. Bialik shared that she did not know she had obsessive compulsive disorder until a doctor told her.
“I just had the things I did to make myself feel safe,” Bialik said.
Nowadays, in addition to co-hosting “Jeopardy!” and continuing to act in sitcoms, Bialik also hosts a podcast, titled “Mayim Bialik’s Breakdown,” which she described as “an exploration” of mental health issues. In the podcast, Bialik, who has a doctorate in neuroscience, breaks down the complexities surrounding mental health to lead to a better understanding for all of her listeners.
Perhaps the most important message to communicate is that mental illness is not a failure of character.
“People who are bipolar, who have mental health issues, are not bad people; they are struggling,” Bialik stressed.
This is part of the work that MHANJ and its partners do every day.
The first honoree of the evening was James McCreath, retired vice president for psychiatry, behavioral health and long-term care at Trinitas Regional Medical Center in Elizabeth. A licensed clinical social worker with a doctorate, McCreath helped make Trinitas one of the largest hospital-based mental health centers in New Jersey, offering the full continuum of care for adults, children, adolescents and families alike. In addition to a 98-bed inpatient facility, Trinitas has a special unit for mentally ill and developmentally disabled individuals.
“Jim has been an outstanding leader in the behavioral health field,” Garwin said. “He has been a strong advocate for his clients; he has been a strong advocate for the mental health field.”
“It has been a wonderful 46 years and every day I couldn’t wait to get to work. Of course there were some days I couldn’t wait to get home,” McCreath joked, adding that receiving this award is “on top of a fulfilling career and from such a distinguished organization as MHANJ.”
The MHANJ also honored McCreath’s organization, the behavioral health and psychiatry department at Trinitas Regional Medical Center. The award was received by Aziel Valdez, director of nursing, behavioral health and psychiatry.
“It has an outstanding faculty,” Garwin said. “It does a great job locally and it has statewide programs.”
Jacob C. Farbman, executive director of the Center for Student Success of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, took home an award as well, for his work in supporting the mental health of county college students during the height of the pandemic.
“He has spent his career as a dedicated community college advocate,” Garwin said. “The college age is one of the most sensitive ages for mental health and treatment,” he continued, adding that this was especially true during the height of the pandemic.
“Thank you for helping us support the 300,000 students who rely on community colleges as a pathway to economic independence,” Farbman said.
MHANJ also celebrated the New Jersey Council of County Colleges, with NJCCC President Aaron Fichtner accepting the award.
“We thank you all for this important partnership,” Fichtner said.
The final award went to the MinuteClinic, which is located inside select CVS Pharmacy stores. MinuteClinic offers expanded services where clinicians can screen, diagnose and treat customers and provide follow-up care for chronic conditions, including mental health issues, as well as provide services for minor injuries and illnesses, immunizations, and annual exams.
“This initiative is in response to the growing need for affordable mental health support,” Garwin said of MinuteClinic.
The award was collected by Angela Patterson, chief nurse practitioner officer of CVS MinuteClinic.
Event host Lynette Sheard applauded each honoree, adding, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been to the MinuteClinic.”
Throughout the evening, Sheard relied on the symbolism of the lotus flower, which grows out of mud into something beautiful and aromatic.
“As I talk about the lotus growing, we are also growing and learning,” said Sheard, a singer and actor who is the director of MHANJ’s New Jersey Mental Health Players, an interactive community education program, and winner of the 2021 national Richard Van Horn Innovation in Programming Award from Mental Health America. Sheard has worked at the Mental Health Association for more than 18 years as a staff development trainer, senior employment specialist and a community education coordinator.
Mental Health Players is just one of many programs offered through MHANJ. To learn more about all of MHANJ’s various programs, visit mhanj.org.
Photos by Yael Katzwer