ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — Seventy-five years ago, Clifford Beers was released from the hospital after suffering from a mental illness and founded the New Jersey Mental Hygiene Association, which aims to improve treatment for mental illnesses in hospitals. Beers’ organization still exists, but under a different name; the Mental Health Association in New Jersey is celebrating its diamond anniversary this year, and the statewide nonprofit is still going strong, providing services for residents dealing with mental illness and substance abuse.
“We’ve actually shifted to ‘behavioral health,’ and no one knows what that is,” MHANJ President and CEO Carolyn Beauchamp said in a phone interview on Nov. 18. “We find that many people who come to us for one thing have both.”
Beauchamp explained that “behavioral health” describes the connection between mental health and behaviors, such as substance abuse, saying there is a strong connection between the two.
“One of the things we’re trying is, to make people see behavioral health as a public health issue,” Beauchamp said. “You may have a broken ankle, you may have depression; you may have depression because you have a broken ankle.”
Headquartered in Springfield, the MHANJ has additional locations in Atlantic, Hudson and Ocean counties, and affiliates in Essex, Monmouth, Morris and Passaic counties, and in southwest New Jersey. Mike Leotis, a facilitating coordinator in Ocean County, began working for the MHANJ after being a client.
“I was hospitalized in 2011, and they have a support group that I was welcomed into,” Leotis said in a phone interview on Nov. 18. “It was a time in my life when I didn’t feel particularly good about myself, and they wanted me and welcomed me and I was in a place where I wasn’t going to be judged.”
The support group and other services helped Leotis get back to his job as a high school teacher, and a year later he returned to a support group to talk about his experience.
“They asked me if I wanted to work for them, and I said ‘Yeah, more than ever,” Leotis said. “It was my goal to get into the mental health field, but I just didn’t know how to do it.”
Now, he’s working on recovery with clients and helping to train others to provide mental health support. Beauchamp said Leotis is a great example of what the MHANJ wants to do — provide support to patients from people who have had similar experiences.
“We recommend peers’ help,” she said. “We’ve been advocating for having peers in the emergency room because they know what it’s like. We try to have people who have had that experience be there.”
Having been through a mental health crisis himself, Leotis knows how to connect with support group members who need to speak with someone who understands them.
“It breaks down that wall,” he said. “I have the opportunity to run the meeting now. Once I say ‘I’ve been where you’ve been,’ they know I understand. That’s what really got to me, the feeling that I wasn’t alone. It can really build a wonderful relationship where you say ‘We can work on this together.’ You can’t fake authenticity. I’m not just saying I know what they’re going through, I actually do.”
According to Beauchamp, the MHANJ operates five call lines: for patients to call while they are waiting for medical care; for those with mental illness dealing with natural disasters; a suicide lifeline; for family members of patients; and for information and referrals.
“When people need help, they don’t know where to call,” Beauchamp said. “It’s hard to reach people. People call us when they don’t know what to do. People answering have been trained and have been there before.”
She said the people who answer the phones speak with callers about possible solutions to their problems.
“We do a combination of what they want and what will help them,” she said.
The MHANJ also provides support for family members, teaching them how to engage with those who have an illness or substance abuse problem. Often, the affected person isn’t ready for the treatment their family wants for them.
“Years ago, the rule was cut them off and get them out of the house,” Beauchamp said. “We don’t want to do that. So we talk about the options, because a lot don’t know.”
Leotis said the organization provides transportation to support groups, dinner at events, and hosts one social event a month for patients, like Bingo or a movie.
“It gives people a chance to connect and say ‘It’s OK to enjoy life,’” he said.
The organization’s 75th anniversary will be celebrated with a gala on Wednesday, Dec. 4, at the Park Savoy Estates in Florham Park, with proceeds going to support the group’s advocacy and services. Beauchamp will be honored for her 35 years of leadership, along with Jennifer G. Velez, the executive vice president of community and behavioral health for RWJBarnabas Health and former commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Human Services; and Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson. Tickets can be purchased at https://mhanj.salsalabs.org/gala or by calling 973-571-4100, ext. 123.
“They were in the hospital and assumed they would be there for life,” Beauchamp said of Beers and his fellow patients in the 1940s. “He wanted people to have more freedom, and so do we. This is not a pull yourself up and make yourself OK situation. It’s not a choice. It’s come a long way, but we have a ways to go.”