MONTVILLE, NJ – The Montville and Boonton United Methodist Churches hosted an event March 8, both to honor their essay contest winners and to shed some light on mental health issues.

Titled “Rising from the Ashes” and held at the Montville United Methodist Church, the event was designed to create a discussion around mental health problems like suicide and depression. The two churches held a contest in December for students in grades six through 12, asking for essays and projects designed to reduce the stigma.

“We are told that 123 people in America die from suicide each day,” the churches wrote in their contest information. “This death toll has been increasing every year since 2000, and for each life lost to suicide, there are 25 suicide attempts and one in five people experiences a diagnosable mental health disorder, but the average individual with symptoms doesn’t seek help for 8-10 years. Many individuals who experience substance use disorders or mental health disorders do not seek help because of fear, shame, or judgment from friends or family.”

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The contest winners included Esme Lockwood, a junior at Montville Township High School, who submitted a winning project she entitled “No More.” She contrasted her initiative with “Say No to Drugs” by pointing out that addiction is an illness, not a choice. She suggested an after-school therapy program to create a safe space for students who are too afraid to go to their parents or counselors, recruiting people who are, or who know someone, battling heroin addiction.

“I have learned to treat people who are going through addiction with understanding rather than anger [because it] limits their self improvement,” Lockwood wrote in the paragraph accompanying her project description. She won $100 towards her project from the churches.

Pastor Donald Kirschner of both churches said that the students had written powerful words in their essays and proposals.

“I think we can as a church, [in] the schools – we as people can help get the stigma-free message out,” he said. “We know of too many people who have taken their own lives […] who have not been able to fight or overcome internal battles they face […] who feel ashamed to even speak about what they’re going through, because of the stigma associated with it. I hope that you will start conversations that save lives. That you will choose to be ‘stigma free.’ Not just because your county has signs that say ‘Proud to Be Stigma Free.’ Not just because students are writing essays with this powerful message. But because we think it’s what we’re called to, in a society with more overdose deaths, and mental health illness a bigger reality than ever before. We need to be aware of what’s going on.”

Eighth grader Melody Hart (Gillette, NJ) submitted a proposal called a Paint and Rip, similar to a paint ‘n’ sip. Each participant would paint an inspiring piece of art, write a negative label for a mentally ill person on a sticky note, and rip up the note. She also won the junior high essay contest, bringing home a $150 Amazon gift card for her essay and $100 for the project.

Samia Shivon of Boonton High School is in 11th grade and was the essay winner at the high school level; she brought home a $150 Amazon gift card.

Following the introduction of the contest winners, Lynette Sheard, director of the state Mental Health Players troupe, introduced her actors for a performance. The Mental Health Players (MHP) are part of a community education program designed to provide audiences with a basic education about mental illness. “Cynthia” and “Karen” acted out two scenarios which spotlighted stress, depression and possible addiction. Sheard moderated the performance, seeking audience input with questions like, “What should Karen do?” and “What should Cynthia tell her?”

“‘Recovery is possible,’ is the message we want to share with all of you,” Sheard said. “We should have the conversation about mental health, so that we de-stigmatize it. There was a time when we didn’t talk about cancer – now we do. There was a time we didn’t talk about AIDS, straight, or LGBTQ – now we do. Let’s do that for mental illness.”

Morris County mental resources such as the Stigma-Free Task Force and local resident Veronica Tullo’s Help Educate At Risk Teen’s foundation for attendees to seek aid.

The Mental Health Association in NJ, parent of the MHP, website is

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