NORTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – Back in January, resident Mark T. Williams addressed the Borough Council and proposed launching a Stigma-Free Zone initiative ‘to reduce the stigmas typically associated with mental illness through education, open conversation and advocacy.’ The idea was well received by the seven-member council with a resolution to create a North Plainfield Stigma Free Zone approved unanimously at a public meeting last month.

“Our goal is for residents to feel more comfortable, and for them to know that they are safe from judgment, can get the services they need and that we, as a community, have a better understanding of mental illness and how it affects our residents,” said North Plainfield Council President Larry La Ronde.

According to Williams, the development of a Stigma-Free Zone in North Plainfield will help ‘create a more compassionate and knowledgeable community where we see the person and not the illness.’

Sign Up for E-News

“One in five adults experiences a diagnosable mental illness every year (NAMI) and many of these individuals do not seek help because of fear, shame or judgment from friends, family and co-workers,” said Williams, an adult psychiatric mental health nurse and 25-year resident of the borough. “As a mental health professional, I know that far too many people suffer alone rather than seek help due to the stigma that so often accompanies mental health diagnoses.”

La Ronde agrees. “Passing this resolution will raise awareness of local mental health resources and provide more of a comfort zone for those who may suffer from a mental health issue,” he said. “Oftentimes, individuals fail to seek the help they need due to the stigma associated a mental illness disease. By passing this resolution, we hope to better inform and foster an environment where people are free from judgment, do not have to feel hopeless or alone, and are more comfortable seeking the help they need.”

The Stigma-Free Zone campaign was founded in 2012 by former Governor Richard Codey and his wife Mary Jo and is currently the educational arm of ‘The Codey Fund for Mental Health.Community initiatives are also currently present in both Bergen and Morris counties. Looking to launch the initiative locally, Williams presented the idea for the campaign to North Plainfield leaders in December 2016. The proposed ‘Sigma-Free Zone’ initiative was then placed on the council’s Jan. 23 meeting agenda and approved upon second reading at the Feb. 13 meeting.

Passage of the resolution in the borough gives North Plainfield the distinction of being the first Somerset County community to designate itself as a Stigma-Free Zone. “We are hoping the county will also pass a resolution claiming Somerset County as a Stigma-Free Zone and that other municipalities will do the same,” said La Ronde.

Locally, the Campaign for a North Plainfield Stigma-Free Zone’s steering committee – which includes Williams along with fellow borough residents Kidy Nathalla Pena, Casey Sobel, Lara Rinaldi and Kate Riegel – will lead the initiative guided by a Stigma-Free Campaign Municipality Toolkit. The committee will create a community program that will utilize state and federal resources, neighborhood events and printed materials to inform and educate the community. 

Partnerships, said Williams, will also be established with schools, community groups, borough leaders, the police, healthcare workers, faith-based organizations and others who are most likely to come into contact with someone having mental health concerns.

“Efforts to engage community organizations as partners are already bearing fruit,” said Williams.

The North Plainfield Citizens for Community Rights (NPCCR) is scheduled to host a North Plainfield Stigma-Free Zone Campaign kick-off at their regularly scheduled April meeting. It will be held Tuesday, April 6 at the North Plainfield Community Center, 614 Greenbrook Road, beginning at 7 p.m.

“Creating community ambassadors will be key to disseminating information that will reduce stigma and result in more people seeking help,” Williams said. “We invite the residents of North Plainfield and surrounding communities to join us and become Stigma-Free Zone Campaign ambassadors.”

Overall, said Williams, the mission of the Stigma-Free Zone campaign is to ‘ensure that people have access to compassionate, quality mental healthcare and that the barrier of stigma so often associated with mental illness is overcome through public awareness and education.’

“Here in North Plainfield we can provide safe spaces for our neighbors; we can inform and educate spaces filled with myths and misinformation; we can empathize and increase hope in spaces filled with hopelessness; and we can listen to gain trust in spaces filled with distrust,” Williams said.

Residents seeking additional information about the North Plainfield Stigma-Free Zone campaign can contact Mark Williams at RNRE610@gmail.com.

TAPinto North Plainfield, Green Brook and Watchung is free and published daily; sign up to get all the news as it happens at www.tapinto.net/enews and follow us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/TAPintoNPGBW and on Twitter @tapintonpgbw