Northwest Bergen communities promote mental wellness

Oakland – About three months ago, George Gorman heard news no parent should ever hear: His son had taken his own life.

Gorman’s startling admission came on Mar25 at an Oakland Borough Council meeting when it was considering becoming a ‘stigma-free community,’ joining a county campaign to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness.

Gorman spoke openly of his anguish over losing his 18-year-old son, Zachary, by suicide.

“What I’ve learned is that I don’t know what I don’t know,” he said. “But I want to be involved with a proactive approach.”

Councilman Pat Pignatelli said he was “eager to get a committee started” and put out a call for volunteers.

“People need to know where to go: where they can find speakers and programs for support.” Pignataelli said.

Oakland’s neighbor, Franklin Lakes, already has adopted the stigma-free designation.

“Last December, as part of our multi-faceted approach to wellness in our community, we passed a resolution to declare Franklin Lakes a stigma-free zone as it relates to the mental illness.” Mayor Frank Bivona said.

“In adopting the resolution, the Franklin Lakes governing body sought to address the stigma associated with the disease of mental illness.  As recited in the resolution, the stigma is identified as the primary reason individuals fail to seek the help they need to recover from the disease. Designating the borough as a stigma-free zone is intended to raise awareness of local resources that are available to treat the disease of mental illness and encourage residents to engage in care as soon as the need is identified to that recovery can begin.”

The Franklin Lakes’ Mayor’s Wellness program has been “very successful,” Bivona said, and the community recently was designated a “Healthy Town.”

“Wellness is about body and mind, “Bivona said. “Mental illness is a disease that affects a large percentage of adults and teens; in fact, over 20 percent of people experience some sort of mental illness every year.

“In many cases, these illnesses can result in abuse of alcohol or drugs. Our Municipal Alliance has partnered in this effort by providing programs and information to raise awareness of these issues.  Removing the stigma associated with mental illness and treating it a disease, which it is, will improve the desire and ability of those affected to see, help.
Wyckoff declared itself a stigma-free zone in March, and Mayor Kevin Rooney said it is an important part of his wellness initiative.

“There are many stigmas in our society,” he said. “Stigmas can create many barriers, whether mental illness, social discrimination, drug or alcohol addiction. It can lead to narrow-mindedness.

“As leaders in our community, it is our obligation to promote public outreach and seek new, innovative ways to get the message out that people with mental, physical, drug and alcohol addiction are not prejudged, rather supported and able to be part of a productive society,” Rooney said.

Although Midland Park has not acted on a resolution, Councilman Scott Pruiksma said he hopes to host a free training session for volunteers so they can identify those with mental health issues in the community.

“Everyone needs a listening ear,” Pruiksma said. “If people realize that it’s OK to tell their story, it can be very helpful.”

Pruiksma said he wants to put together a stigma-free task force. If he can get 20 volunteers, he said.  Bergen County Human Services representatives will come to the Bolger Community Center on May 11 and 12 to present a free training session.

“It’s especially great that it’s going to be at the Bolger Community Center because Mr. Bolger has a great heart for people struggling with mental health issues.” Pruiksma said of one of the community’s biggest benefactors.

“I’m working on getting this team in place, including a couple of kids from the high school,” he said. “This way, we can keep tables on kids that go away to college and come home sometimes confused and floundering during a time when there are great changes in their lives. We would be able to direct them to the help they need.

“Of course,” he added, “there are many life issues that people need to talk about. People of all ages need that ear, someone to listen.”

According to the Bergen County Division of Mental Health, the World Health organization ranks mental health disorders as the leading cause of disability in the United States and Canada.  Mental illnesses, such as depression, anxiety or alcohol and substance use disorders are common in America. One in four adults experiences a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year – about 61.5 million Americans. – While one in 17 adults live with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.