LITTLE FALLS, NJ - The Township of Little Falls is looking to start a Stigma Free program beginning this fall.

The initiative is being spearheaded by Councilwoman Maria Martini Cordonnier. In her committee report as school district liaison during the June 12 council meeting, she noted that she had attended a Stigma Free event at a school in Morris County recently.

"I attended this annual event with Little Falls schools superintendent Tracy Marinelli," said Cordonnier. "They've been doing this for about four years and we'd like to do something as well because they're really doing a great thing."

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According to Cordonnier, after speaking with Mayor James Damiano, the township is now planning to begin its own Stigma Free initiative in October.

"It's not just during the month of October we want to highlight this initiative, but we want to begin a whole ongoing program in association with our township's municipal alliance," she added.

The Morris County Stigma Free Communities initiative is a countywide program, which aims to eradicate the stigma associate with mental illness and substance use disorders. It's an effort dedicated to creating an environment that supports affected individuals towards achieving wellness and recovery by raising awareness of these illnesses, according to their press release.

The Borough of Woodland Park also recently began a Stigma Free Task Force. Founded last fall it is comprised of various residents, health care providers, educators, business owners, elected officials, clergy, law enforcement, fire and first aid volunteers, library staff, and others working together to bring awareness to the conditions of mental health. The group aims to also provide education, information and assistance to those who suffer from mental illness.

Several recent events locally and nationally have also brought to light the growing heroin addiction problem plaguing teens and young adults. Police believe that a heroin overdose was the cause of death of Passaic Valley High School student in April. In response, the high school recently held a community forum on substance abuse and recovery. A screening of the documentary "Generation Found," which focuses on the alarming rate of youth addiction, was aired. Following the screening, panelists, many who dealt with addiction, held a questions and answer session for attendees.

A former resident of the Passaic Valley area, who wished to remain anonymous, and suffers from complex Post Trauma Stress Syndrome, said towns and cities that have started awareness programs and initiatives are taking steps in the right direction in order to help those suffering from mental health issues and addiction.

"Mental health ranges fluctuate in people," he said. "It's great that there is much so more awareness and information out there now than was available years ago."

He added that he faced many challenges as a youngster that became underlying behavioral factors for him, which led to his diagnosis as an adult. One of the cause issues he says now, was that his family left him no explanation for certain events that occurred when he was a child, which is why he felt he acted they way he did.

"Mental health issues are two-fold - behavioral and biological issues with the brain," he explained. "It's only when people get older that they can analyze circumstances when they were children. I can only focus on my behavior and how I react now. What we need to keep in mind is that we all have a mental condition that can change based on our situations and memories. We all go through low points, and we all come from elements of suffering."

Now an educator, he says he tries to help people, and in particular, some of his students who may by exhibiting potential mental health issues. He said he has helped implement a program to assist students in understanding their issues, working together with administrators, counselors and faculty, to generate not only awareness, but readiness to assist students. He believes programs like these will become quite normalized in high schools and higher education in the near future. 

"'Look at your issue,' I say to them," he added. "Some of my students have revealed that they may have had suicidal thoughts. I think I've helped them by giving them some options, which has potentially saved lives. This has happened on more than one occasion. When I see young people in crisis, I direct them to a counselor, and with guidance and information that they receive, it has helped save their lives. It's important to be present for someone and not blowing off whatever it is he or she might be going through. It's about deep listening and loving speech."

He also said that some issues that affected him later in life and that set him back were losing his close friend who died during the World Trade Center terrorist attacks on 9/11, a divorce, and losing his beloved sister to cancer.

"I spent five years in a fog," he added. "What helped me after was therapy and meditation, and learning to be open and speak about it."

Additionally, he said that people need to be really open and listen to individuals who are victims of trauma, particularly those who have been victimized in any way by others.

"The perpetrators of a crime need their victims to be silent, but the victims need to act. So many victims remain passive. The problem is that our society still has many people who side with the perpetrator and not the victim," he explained.

He further added that there are so many individuals who may find themselves in deep financial or relationship stress these days.

"They may be struggling to get by day-to-day and need help," he noted. "That's why the Stigma Free Task Force programs that are developing in cities and towns these days is a good thing and very much needed."

He also highlighted the April 2017 issue of The Sun, entitled, "An Open Mind: Sera Davidow Questions What We Think We Know About Mental Illness," by Tracy Frisch.

"Sera Davidow was the victim of sexual, physical, and emotional abuse as a child and has established a very progressive and alternative way to assist people with more profound illness. The information might be useful to many out there who suffer from mental illness."

Arnold Korotkin, a Little Falls resident, who teaches a course at Montclair State University that focuses on the world of people with disabilities, and who was a mental health program and policy consultant for the New York City Department of Mental Health, Mental Retardation and Alcoholism Services, applauded the township’s decision to join the national campaign to establish Little Falls as a Stigma Free community.

Korotkin noted that according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, every year approximately 20% of New Jersey residents are affected with a mental illness condition that may include depression, anxiety, bi-polar disorder, which could impede their daily activities, such as going to work and attending school. 

"The objective of the Stigma Free campaign is to create a community environment where persons with mental illness are accepted and respected, while encouraging them to seek community based mental health services that will facilitate their recovery," Korotkin added.