By Vin Gopal
May is Mental Health Awareness Month and it’s a good time for all of us to focus on helping each other – and ourselves – get beyond the stigma of mental illnesses
Too often people suffering from depression, anxiety, and feelings of isolation don’t seek help for fear of being stereotyped. We need to help them recognize that these are normal feelings that with proper help we can prevent from ruling our lives.
As Maureen A. Brogan, statewide program manager of the Traumatic Loss Coalition for Youth at Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care, put it. “We need to get to the point where it’s okay to not be okay.”
In the State Senate Education Committee, we put aside time at every meeting to discuss ways of addressing mental health in schools and important initiatives are moving forward in the State Legislature. But what can we do as individuals to help remove the stigma that holds back so many people from getting help?
As someone who has suffered from anxiety and depression, I know how hard it can be, at first, to admit needing help. But the support from family and friends was an enormous benefit in getting past what others might think.
Children suffer the most from the stigma of mental illness, which often takes the form of cyberbullying. Bullying by schoolmates used to end at 4 o’clock when everyone went home. Today, with social media, it’s full-time.
The Legislature has made strides in improving access to mental health services in the past couple of years, but there is still much to do.
One of the biggest problems we have in New Jersey schools is that each school district seems to be doing something different. Right now, we are trying to get all 600 school districts to tell us what they are doing with their mental health dollars. We’re hoping to get that information from the Department of Education soon so we can get a better idea of what works best and develop standards that work for everyone.
Another priority is training more professionals and keeping them in New Jersey. We’re pressing legislation for instate universities to develop a program to encourage people to go into mental health and social work and to provide incentives to keep them in New Jersey when they graduate.
We’re also fighting to extend the requirement established during the pandemic for insurance companies to cover telemedicine for mental health. Our legislation to enable victims of cyberbullying to get restraining orders against their tormentors before bullying escalates to violence also is moving through committees.
We need to create as many hubs as possible for children to turn to for help and we must find a better way to coordinate these resources. We succeeded in getting $12 Million for the New Jersey Pediatric Psychiatric Collaborative (NJPPC) in the current state budget, along with $25 million for Monmouth County to provide early intervention programs, expand school-linked services, and fund the suicide crisis hotline. We’ll be fighting just as hard for funds for mental health services in Monmouth County in FY2024 budget talks starting next month.
However, we should never underestimate our power as individuals to have a significant impact by encouraging children, family members and friends to get past the stigma of mental illness and appreciate that “it’s okay to not be okay.”
Senator Vin Gopal serves as Senate Majority Conference Leader and Chair of the Senate Education Committee. Elected in 2018, a lifelong resident of Monmouth County, Senator Gopal represents residents of Asbury Park, Allenhurst, Colts Neck, Deal, Eatontown, Freehold, Freehold Township, Interlaken, Loch Arbor, Long Branch, Neptune City, Neptune Township, Ocean Township, Red Bank, Tinton Falls, Shrewsbury, Shrewsbury Township, and West Long Branch in the State Senate.