Making Mental Health Stigma-Free, a Priority in Paramus, New Jersey

Making Mental Health Stigma-Free, a Priority in Paramus, New Jersey
July 31st, 2013

Concerned citizens, business leaders, and local government officials of Paramus have found common ground on a highly publicized topic: mental illness. This commonality has inspired them to form a coalition to create a “Stigma-Free Zone” for the borough.

What is a Stigma-Free Zone?

The proposal of designating Paramus a “Stigma-Free Zone” was developed out of seeing a need from a concerned citizen of Paramus, Mary Ann Uzzi. Through her work on the Care Plus NJ, Inc. board of trustees – a mental health care organization headquartered in Paramus – she became aware of the effort to designate Hoboken a Stigma-Free Zone back in 2011. Seeing first hand how stigma and fear prevent so many from seeking help, as well as observing the positive outcomes for those who do receive treatment, she made it a personal mission to gather community members and business to band together and bring the public awareness initiative to Paramus.

Stigma-Free Zone advocate Mary Ann Uzzi and Paramus Mayor Richard LaBarbiera.
Stigma-Free Zone advocate Mary Ann Uzzi and Paramus Mayor Richard LaBarbiera.

The goal of a community initiative such as this is to involve a variety of members of the community – including the Mayor and Council, Board of Health and Human Services, Chamber of Commerce, public safety and law enforcement, mental health providers, mental health advocates, local businesses, schools, and concerned citizens – and develop programs and activities to engage the community at large, to educate and thereby eliminate the stigma often attached to those who suffer from mental illness.

What is Stigma?

“There should be no shame in discussing or seeking help for treatable illnesses that affect too many people we love. We’ve got to get rid of that embarrassment, we’ve got to get rid of that stigma. Too many Americans who struggle with mental health illnesses are still suffering in silence rather than seeking help,” stated President Barack Obama in his speech at a national conference on mental illness in June of this year.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 1 in 4 adults experience a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year, with nearly half of them experiencing onset by the age of 14. These statistics illustrate the need for early intervention, yet more than half of all affected do not seek treatment. The main reason cited is fear of judgment from friends, family, and co-workers. This “stigma” or “shame” is associated with being labeled as “crazy” or “loony” – labels typically applied by those who are misinformed about the nature of mental diseases.

“Stigma is a huge problem when it comes to mental illness because many people are ashamed, embarrassed, and scared,” said Uzzi. “This prevents those who suffer from it to avoid seeking help. And there are so many more people who just don’t understand it. The whole idea is to educate the community about mental illness and to train people to be aware of the signs, and so that they know what to do if someone is in crisis,” explained Uzzi.

While still in the planning stages, the group has discussed several key programs such as training those who work with the community on Mental Health First Aid, a national program that teaches how to identify when someone is having a mental health challenge or is in crisis, and how to respond. They also have programs planned to educate the citizens “in laymen’s terms” on mental health topics, as well as community events and open houses.

“We are looking to engage the community in a way that they learn what mental illness is, eliminate the fear, and let them know what resources are available right in their own backyard,” Uzzi shared.

CarePlus is working with the coalition, alongside of Bergen Regional Medical Center, Valley Hospital and other key health care organizations in the Paramus area, to provide their expertise in training and working with the community.

A resolution was unanimously passed at the town council meeting on July 23rd. Mayor Richard LaBarbiera stated, “The Borough of Paramus is honored to be the first community in Bergen County to become a Stigma-Free Zone.  There is certainly a need for awareness regarding mental illness and I am proud that Paramus has taken on this initiative.”

A website – ParamusStigmaFree.org – is being developed to help keep the community apprised of events and to share information about mental illness. A Facebook page is also in the works.

The Paramus Public Library is also actively involved and has prepared a resource center for visitors.

More information can be obtained by emailing humanservices@paramusborough.org or calling Irene Maury at 201-265-2100 ext 635.

Find out more…

Paramus.Patch.com – Paramus Will Be Second ‘Stigma Free Zone’ in the Nation

Paramus.Patch.com – Paramus Looks to Combat Mental Illness Stigma

Town News: Care Plus to combat stigma for those who need help